SAN FRANCISCO — Holding two aluminum Budweiser bottles in his hands, Willson Contreras walked up to Theo Epstein and poured beer all over the Cubs president’s head in the middle of a TV interview.
Uh, yeah, Contreras acts like he belongs in The Show, with a big smile and Oakley goggles perched atop his head. That raucous scene from inside AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse late Tuesday night on the West Coast showed how this team responds to all the noise about curses, panic and the indestructible nature of the San Francisco Giants in an even year.
The Cubs had just staged an epic comeback, winning a National League Division Series with a ninth-inning rally that saw them wipe out a three-run deficit — and the dreaded possibility of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 — by scoring four runs against five different Giant relievers.
Contreras delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single in that 6-5 victory, driving the pitch from lefty Will Smith past diving second baseman Joe Panik into center field. Contreras pointed toward the visiting dugout and punched his chest with his right fist as he ran up the line. At first base, Contreras screamed and pounded his chest again, this time with both fists, a billboard for The Cubs Way.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Contreras said. “I was trying to have a good at-bat and make a good swing. That’s what I did. We don’t have to put pressure on ourselves. Once you start enjoying the game, you’re going to enjoy the playoffs.”
Be free. Be loose. Be yourself. That’s what Joe Maddon and his coaching staff kept telling this team, backed by a group of clubhouse enforcers with World Series experience.
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In an NLDS where Javier Baez showed off his defensive wizardry, pimping at home plate and absolute joy for the game, Contreras proved that he could channel all that adrenaline, too, handling his catching responsibilities in a tense playoff series and going 4-for-6 with a walk in seven plate appearances.
“He’s a winner,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our young guys, they’re excitable, but I love that. Look at Javy and Willson — they’re going to do that stuff. Listen, it’s just the postseason. I have no problem with teams celebrating against us. I like the fact that our guys celebrate. They’re excited. They should celebrate. There’s no showing anybody up in October.”
At this time last year, Contreras watched the playoffs from the Arizona Fall League, picturing what he would do for the 2016 Cubs and how he would build off a season that saw him win a Southern League batting title at Double-A Tennessee.
The Cubs envisioned Contreras being this year’s Kyle Schwarber, the midseason shot of adrenaline to the lineup, behind the plate and in the outfield. It became more of a necessity when Schwarber wrecked his left knee during an outfield collision in early April.
The Cubs will return to the NL Championship Series and battle the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers with a deep roster accented by versatility, premium young talent and fearless personalities. Contreras is the 24-year-old rookie who only spent a little more than two months at Triple-A Iowa — and has the rocket arm to help control the running game the New York Mets exploited during that 2015 NLCS sweep.
“I don’t have the words to say how big this year is for me and for the team,” Contreras said. “But we got to keep on. We got to keep working to the next series.”
The Cubs needed that burst of energy to overpower a Giants team that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games. This didn’t look like a random playoff moment for Contreras, who loves performing on the big stage.
“We play 27 outs,” Contreras said. “You got to give credit to the San Francisco Giants. That’s a really nice team. They never give up. But we did the little things. We never give up.”