LOS ANGELES — Less than 24 hours after Willson Contreras celebrated a career highlight and the high point of this Cubs season so far, he leaped in pain at being struck on the left hand by a 98-mph fastball from Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly on Friday night.
And just like that, the rest of the season flashed before the Cubs’ eyes — the fine line between the Cubs playing with the swagger of a contender against the defending champs and a worst-case injury that could threaten their best-laid plans exposed in the flash of one pitch.
“That’s an area that if Willson were to go down, that would be a huge blow to our team.”
That was Cubs manager David Ross just over a week ago.
The only thing that has changed since then is the amount of gray in the manager’s beard after Contreras spent several minutes being examined by the trainer Friday and then the rest of the inning trying to shake the pain out of the collection of small bones in the hand.
“That was a scary moment,” Ross said. “We’ll see how it presents here afterward, and have the trainers check it out again. The good sign is he got through the game and was still able to compete at a high level.”
Whether the bruise worsens overnight and whether the hardest-working catcher in the game is back in the lineup Saturday, this much is certain:
A Cubs team that has weathered more than a dozen injuries to key players since the season started can least afford one to its two-time All-Star catcher — whose backup, Jose Lobaton, had not played a major-league game in three years until this month, when he was pressed into duty because of injuries.
Lobaton is the fourth backup catcher used by the Cubs this season, and the dropoff between Contreras and him is the steepest from starter to backup in the majors right now.
That’s not a knock on Lobaton as much as it speaks to the value of Contreras — who just one night earlier navigated four pitchers through the first combined no-hitter in franchise history.
“One of the coolest things [Thursday] night was seeing him go out for that ninth inning, and he kind of stopped and hesitated on the [dugout] stairs,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And you could see him take this big, deep breath and say, ‘OK, let’s go.’
“He wanted it bad.”
Contreras prides himself on being a workhorse behind the plate.
“That’s why I prepare myself really good in the offseason with my brother,” said Contreras, whose brother William is a rookie catcher for Atlanta. “We have a really good work ethic, and that’s why I’m proud of myself, proud of getting the workload that I’ve been getting because I know that my body can support that.”
But he’s not invincible. Kelly reminded him and the Cubs of that much.
And as important as he is to the Cubs and their ability to hang with the contenders in the National League, he can’t catch every game — try as he might.
And as tempted as the manager might be to try.
“It is extremely difficult not to write his name in the lineup,” Ross said
Somebody get recently released Tigers catcher Wilson Ramos on the phone. Or at the very least put the search for a starting pitcher on the back burner and heat up those trade calls for a catcher who can help control a running game and handle a diverse pitching staff.
Either that, or start applying the bubble wrap to Contreras’ body now.
Because the heat will be on this team in a much different, uncomfortable way if he’s the next one forced to the injured list.
Contreras called Thursday night’s no-hitter “super special, something in my life that will be hard for me to forget.”
It also was something that his increasing value as a two-way player at a premier position helped make happen as he called no-hit innings all night long for pitching styles ranging from starter Zach Davies’ 88-mph finesse to closer Craig Kimbrel’s 98-mph power.
“There’s a lot of pride to be taken from his seat in [Thursday] night’s performance for sure,” said Ross, a former Contreras teammate who caught Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter for the Cubs in 2016.
“Something like that gives you a lot of validation being in that position.”
With 86 games left in the season and one game to make up on the Brewers in the National League Central, the Cubs need whatever Contreras has to give them the rest of the way.
Which means they desperately need some catching help long before they get to the July 30 trade deadline.
Otherwise, that catching seat Ross mentioned could fall to him again by the time this thing is done.
Which would at least provide a helmet and mask to hide his next wave of gray hairs.