Alfonso Soriano wants to be part of it when Cubs win

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Alfonso Soriano wants to be part of it when Cubs win

Alfonso Soriano managed to rehabilitate his image, even while the Cubs lost 101 games last season. Telling the front office to not bother pursuing a trade with the San Francisco Giants, the team that would win the World Series, didnt stick with him either.

Everyone loves Sori around the Cubs clubhouse. He didnt change as much as the perception of him shifted. Even if theyre never going to put up his statue at a renovated Wrigley Field, theyve developed a grudging respect for the 136 million man.

As the Cubs Convention opened on Friday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, there was Soriano, with two years still left on his contract, full no-trade rights and a big smile on his face.

I want to stay here and finish my career here and try to win before I retire, Soriano said. I signed here to be a World Series winner in Chicago. Its a long time (since they won it). Thats my thing. I hope to stay here, and when they win, I want to be a part of it.

Soriano didnt seem to have any regrets about missing out an opportunity with the Giants, because the weather in San Francisco is not good for my body, especially with my knee.

Soriano also got a call about playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, but didnt pursue it. At the age of 37, he feels he needs to take it slow during spring training and get ready for the season.

Im ready to play hard, here or (with) another team, Soriano said, because this is my job and this is what I like to do.

The rumors will not go away, but the most likely scenario is that Soriano will be reporting to Mesa, Ariz., next month. The Cubs are always willing to listen, but theyre not desperate.

Hes our left fielder, general manager Jed Hoyer said. Im quite sure Dale (Sveum) is going to pencil him in batting fourth. Everything about Sori has been terrific since we walked in. Hes a 30 (homers) and 100 (RBI guy). He took (Starlin) Castro under his wing, showed a lot of young players the way to be a veteran (and) worked hard on his defense with Dave McKay. Everything Soris done has been positive.

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

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USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

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After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

To quote the great Ron Burgundy: That escalated quickly.

Don't look now, but the Cubs are just a game out of first place in the National League Central standings and could take over first place sometime this weekend.

While the Cubs have been on their post All-Star break tear, winners of all six of their games since the Midsummer Classic, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers have been on a simultaneous skid, losers of their last five games.

Because of all that, the standings have tightened dramatically. What was a five and a half game difference between the Cubs and Brewers at the break is now just a one-game gap.

It goes up and down the standings, too, as the Pittsburgh Pirates — who completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers on Thursday afternoon — are just three games back. The St. Louis Cardinals, who start a weekend series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, are just four and a half games back of the Brewers.

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Given how hot the Cubs are right now, a move into first place sometime in the next couple days wouldn't be surprising in the least.

The Cubs have scored a whopping 44 runs during their six-game win streak, an average of more than seven runs a game. That stretch has also seen 16 home runs off Cubs bats.

The Cardinals roll into Wrigley losers of back-to-back games and four of their last seven since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Brewers travel for a three-game weekend set against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the worst record in baseball, and the Pirates pay a visit to the Colorado Rockies, a 56-win team that scored 18 runs in a Wednesday win over the San Diego Padres.

If you were hoping for a fun race in the Central in the second half of the season, it seems your wish has come true. As for those fans waiting around for the Cubs to finally move into first place, where they haven't been since June 6, you might soon get your wish, too.