Willson Contreras pumped his fist once he released the ball from his right hand, the momentum carrying him in a way where he started celebrating with his back almost turned to second base. The Cubs catcher didn’t need to watch the play all the way through to know how it would end.
That ninth-inning snapshot on Monday night at Wrigley Field showed how confident Contreras has become, why the Cubs believe he can be a frontline catcher for years to come, if not their answer to Yadier Molina in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892 and changed during last year’s playoff celebration in Chicago.
The St. Louis Cardinals hung on for the 3-2 victory, but they might have to start running through Contreras, who moments after throwing out Matt Carpenter tagged out Aledmys Diaz at home plate, finishing the play after strong throws from Kris Bryant and Addison Russell on a double to left-center field.
“You’re always going to see me with high energy,” Contreras said. “If a runner is trying to score on my plate – if they make a good throw – they won’t score on my plate. It’s my house. It’s my team. I will do everything for my team.”
Playing on national TV, Contreras got a standing ovation before his first at-bat at Wrigley Field on Sunday night, and then drilled the first pitch he saw into the center-field bleachers for a pinch-hit, two-run homer in a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Before making his first big-league start on Monday, Molina welcomed Contreras to The Show, saying congratulations and good luck.
“I think he’s going to be a superstar, both defensively and offensively,” said Bryant, an All-Star third baseman and the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year. “The kid’s a stud. You just can tell he loves playing baseball. He hits a homer and he goes down and catches bullpens. He just lives and breathes it.”
That’s good, because as much as veterans Miguel Montero and David Ross are here to help, the Cubs will still give Contreras a crash course on catching at this level. And Contreras recognizes the challenges in working with big-name, established pitchers like John Lackey.
“I’m calling the shots,” Contreras said playfully, repeating back part of a reporter’s question. “But I don’t know if he’s going to throw it.”
Lackey (7-3, 2.78 ERA) allowed all three runs within the first three innings – and then made enough adjustments to shut down the Cardinals (36-33) for the next three innings. Contreras went 1-for-4 with a two-out RBI single off St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia in the third inning – and also grounded into a double play against Seung Hwan Oh in the eighth inning.
In summoning Contreras last week from Triple-A Iowa – where he hit .350 and put up a 1.030 OPS in 54 games – the Cubs (47-21) had more concerns about how he would make the transition on defense than where his bat would fit in this lineup.
“He was pretty excited,” Lackey said. “The talent is there, for sure. Things are going to slow down for him. It’ll get better. It was a good first step. And, yeah, he was pretty excited.”
But for a team with well-documented issues trying to control the running game, there was Contreras showing off his rocket arm in the ninth inning, the Cubs knowing it will be a game of inches in the playoffs.
“That had some hair on it,” said manager Joe Maddon, who also thought the Cardinals might have mixed up their signs on that play. “It was absolutely accurate. And you look through that crystal ball in the future, you can see a lot more of that. He’s a game-changer where the other team will not (run). They won’t go.”