Cubs

Willson Contreras lays down the truth on his 2018 season: 'I didn't deserve to have a good year'

Willson Contreras lays down the truth on his 2018 season: 'I didn't deserve to have a good year'

Willson Contreras entered 2018 with 40/1 odds of winning the National League MVP.

There was talk — including some of his own words — he could step up as the greatest catcher on the planet right now.

He was also Joe Maddon's clear choice to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter to begin the year, providing protection in the lineup to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

Yet he ended the season with an OPS 125 points below his 2017 mark and managed only 10 homers and 54 RBI in 474 at-bats a year after he clubbed 21 dingers and drove in 74 runs in 377 at-bats.

So what happened? 

The energetic 26-year-old catcher was brutally honest in talking about his game in a sitdown interview with NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull early in spring training.

Contreras admitted he slacked off on his pregame routine as the year went on.

"I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I'd usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift," Contreras said. "To be honest, I didn't lift at all [as 2018 went on]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn't deserve to have a good year last year. That's what I told myself. I've learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I'm here."

Contreras actually began the year pretty well, hitting .279 with an .818 OPS and 31 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) in the first half. That was enough to earn him a trip to the All-Star Game as the National League starter, where he homered in his first at-bat off Chris Sale.

Things cratered from there, as he hit just .200 with a .585 OPS in the second half, with only 11 extra-base hits in 56 games.

Many have wondered if Contreras simply wore down physically because he was playing too much and didn't get enough rest. He caught more innings than anybody in baseball last year.

But he insists that wasn't the issue and didn't have any injuries last year that contributed to his downturn.

Contreras believes he simply got complacent.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

The day the Cubs' season ended last fall, players talked about how the group may have gotten complacent at various points throughout the year — a point Theo Epstein emphasized in his season eulogy the following day.

Contreras really owned up to that on his end and a few weeks after the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, he got back to work. He knows working out and being in great shape doesn't guarantee him a good season in 2019 and he also understands he has work to do on the mental aspect of the game.

Maddon has preached to Contreras to "get back in the huddle" and bounce back after a bad moment instead of beating himself up about each little failure. 

"I tell him — and I mean it — he's the best talent there is out there at that particular position," Maddon said. "In 2017, the second half, before he got hurt, he was showing that. He absolutely was showing that. Then he becomes the All-Star National League catcher. The second half of last year was the anomaly moment that I really don't think you saw a great representation of him or anywhere near what he is. 

"We gotta get beyond that and I think we will. But it's the controlling of emotions and getting back into the huddle or moving on to the next play without having the previous play impacted."

One of Contreras' main goals for 2019 is to have more fun with the game. He believes he now has a better understanding that baseball is a game fraught with failure and wants to model his approach more like Ben Zobrist. The Cubs catcher admires the way the veteran goes about his business each day, regardless of his outing the night before.

Contreras also admitted he maybe got too caught up in his work as a catcher — defensively as well as calling a game and working with the pitching staff. 

"I know that I can be better," he said. "I know what I'm capable of on the field and off the field. I always reflect on myself — what did I do today? How much effort did I give on the game? How much effort did I give defensively? 

"I was so focused on my defense that I got too comfortable on the other side. It's a balance. You have to put the weight evenly and you have to worry about both sides."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.

'Yogi' and his hat-balancing act steal the show at Monday's Cubs game

'Yogi' and his hat-balancing act steal the show at Monday's Cubs game

You never know what you are going to find on Authentic Fan Night, including die-hard baseball fans with impressive tricks up their sleeve! 

'Yogi' is the name of the one particular Cubs fan who stole the show on Monday night, and developed his signature tricks in 2005 in a circus show at Bloom High School called "Under the Big Tap".

In 2017 Yogi started doing the hat trick more often and perfected it through much trial and error. 

In our clips, you can hear the Cubs faithful cheer Yogi and our own Kelly Crull on, even she gets in on the fun, trying out Yogi's hat trick for herself!

Hopefully, Yogi's antics bring some good luck to the Cubs, who are in the midst of a fight for a playoff spot in the NL. You can stream Cubs baseball here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

One of the most surreal moments of this crazy Cubs season has to be watching Anthony Rizzo scoot away from his locker Monday afternoon, unable to put any weight on his right ankle.

This is the face of the franchise, the guy who spoke to the millions in attendance at the post-World Series rally three falls ago. Rizzo is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways and has really only dealt with minor back injuries throughout his nine-year career.

Now, he's wearing a boot that makes him look more like Robocop and there's no guarantee Cubs fans will see him take the field again in 2019.

But that doesn't mean you should bet against him...

"In my career, I will definitely play another regular season game," Rizzo jokingly responded to a question from a reporter asking if he will suit up again in the final two weeks of this regular season. "My body usually responds well, so certainly not ruling it out. I have every intention of trying to do everything I can with the training staff to get back on the field with the boys.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series."

The results of Monday's MRI absolutely could've been worse, but the lateral sprain to Rizzo's right ankle will keep him in that boot for the next 5-7 days. After that point, he and the Cubs can determine how much movement and stress that joint can take or how much mobility he'll have.

With the Cubs fighting for their playoff lives over these next two weeks and knowing his gutsy nature, don't be shocked if Rizzo forces the issue and tries to make a return of some sort before October, even if it's just in a small pinch-hitting role.

"There's a minimum amount of time when you have to just prioritize healing and let the inflammation die down and let things heal for a little bit," Theo Epstein said. "And then once we get past that period of time, then we can see if there are ways to manage the discomfort and if there are ways through taping to create some stability that gives him at least a chance to consider contributing down the road if things go really well. 

"We're not shutting any doors, but we're realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal."

Would Epstein be surprised if Rizzo returned before the end of the regular season?

"I'm just comfortable saying that we're not ruling it out," Epstein said. "Shoot, I was there [in Boston] with Curt Schilling in the doctor's office trying to figure out how to staple his ankle ligament back to the bone so he can go out there and pitch. This is not an analogous situation, but I've learned never to rule anything out. 

"But also injuries like this, you just have to give requisite amount of time to let initial healing take place to even have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible."

Of course the Cubs are going to miss Rizzo while he's out. But they definitely seem to be in good spirits with the situation, all things considered.

There was Rizzo joking about how he wants to pimp out his scooter with a bicycle bell or maybe some streamers. 

There was Joe Maddon laughing about how he's thankful Rizzo can't move around too much in the dugout during games because of that scooter. The Cubs manager is already worried about finding a buffer once Rizzo is off the scooter and more mobile.

There was Jason Heyward joking about how restless Rizzo will be in the dugout, talking nonstop about "random shit" and how the Cubs players will enjoy ragging on Rizzo to keep things loose during this next week.

"[The scooter] is torture for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, we kinda love seeing him riding around. He's gonna make a bunch of jokes about it. We're gonna make a bunch of jokes about it and just have fun with it that way. That's all we can do."

Maddon believes Rizzo's injury can be a galvanizing moment for the club, rallying around the injured player much like the Brewers have done since Christian Yelich was ruled out for the season with a broken kneecap.

But the Javy Baez injury and subsequent news of his broken thumb didn't have that same effect on this Cubs team and there have been plenty of "turning points" and "seminal moments" that never materialized over the course of this roller coaster season.

"We don't need any extra rallying points," Heyward said. "We got enough of 'em and we have fun with that. He's gonna add to that. That's what he does when he isn't playing. He brings the rallying points, he brings the fun, he brings that competitiveness and just the randomness as well."

Everybody knows the Cubs can't replace all Rizzo does for the club, from his Gold Glove defense to his steadying presence in the lineup to his two-strike approach to his aggressiveness on bunts and turning double plays. 

Ian Happ took over at first base in Sunday's game when Rizzo left with the injury and Victor Caratini got the start there Monday night. Both guys figure to be in the mix moving forward, with Maddon also mentioning Jonathan Lucroy and Willson Contreras as potential options. 

At the moment, Maddon does not want to move Kris Bryant to play first because he likes what he's seeing from Bryant defensively at third base. Ben Zobrist is also not expected to be a part of the first-base mix.

Caratini will still catch Yu Darvish like usual, which includes Tuesday night's start against the Reds.

As for leadoff (where Rizzo had slotted in the last few games before his injury), Maddon will roll with Zobrist up there as often as he can down the stretch. But the 38-year-old veteran won't be able to play every day and Monday already represented his third straight start.

The Belichickian "next man up" principle applies here and the Cubs know they won't get any sympathy from around the rest of the league even as the injuries pile up.

"Just keep playing," Heyward said. "Keep going. Everybody just do your part. Don't try and do too much. Just be realistic. Play the game, let the game come to you and that's it. Nobody's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, they didn't make it because they didn't have so and so' or 'they made it 'cause they had so and so' or whatever at the end of the day. Especially our group right here. No one's gonna do that. Keep having fun, keep competing."

The Cubs' expectations for how the next two weeks go have not changed one bit, even with their two most important players potentially unable to suit up over these final 13 games. 

"If we play up to our capabilities, we can beat anybody," Epstein said. "It all starts over once you get into the postseason. We're looking forward to doing what we need to do to get in there. 

"We'll see what happens, but we're in a dogfight of a pennant race. One day at a time."

Heyward summed up the team's mindset simply:

"Either we make it where we want to get or we don't."