Chicago Cubs

Definitive proof that Willson Contreras is the best catcher on the planet right now

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USA TODAY

Definitive proof that Willson Contreras is the best catcher on the planet right now

Every Cubs player had a leather vest hanging in their locker Saturday evening, a new addition in advance of the "Easy Rider" themed road trip to the West Coast beginning Monday.

On those vests contained the nickname for each player as the nameplate on the left breast, things like "Schwarbs" for Kyle Schwarber or "Q" for Jose Quintana.

On Willson Contreras' vest, the word "Killer" spread across the left side.

Killer?

Yep, that's Contreras' nickname within the Cubs clubhouse, apparently. It came from Jon Lester and Cubs strength coach Tim Buss (who engineered all the leather vests). 

But why "Killer"? 

"Because of the way I play and the way I look at people on the field," Contreras said, almost bashfully. 

Opposing pitchers would have to agree.

Contreras is on an absolutely surreal run right now, leading baseball with 27 RBI since the All-Star Break (tied with Colorado's Nolan Arenado) after three more runs knocked in during Saturday's 7-4 win over the Nationals.

But Contreras' epic summer actually began earlier than the midseason break, dating back to June 18.

The 25-year-old catcher woke up that mid-June morning hitting .244 with a .708 OPS, five homers and 28 RBI.

Fast forward seven weeks and those numbers now sit at .279, .861, 19 and 68, respectively. He's raised his average 35 points, his OPS 153 points and has driven in 40 runs in 39 games (35 starts) while crushing 14 homers.

"I've been locked in throughout my career in the minor leagues, but not at this level," Contreras said. "Just simplifying things, doing simple things. I think that's the key."

Case in point:

What's even more impressive is Contreras has done this while playing the most demanding position on a daily basis during the hottest time of the year.

"He understands himself; he knows his swing," said veteran backstop Alex Avila, who also homered Saturday. "It doesn't seem like he gets tired. That's nice being that age. 

"He's got tremendous ability and has an idea how to use it. ... As he gets older, he's gonna notice some things about himself and about the league and his baseball IQ will only go up from here."

Even on what is supposed to be an off-day, Cubs manager Joe Maddon couldn't possibly rationalize taking Contreras' bat out of the lineup, so he bumped him from catcher to left field for one afternoon.

Saturday's monster showing now puts Contreras on pace for 28 homers and 101 RBI in only 480 at-bats.

Those numbers are simply staggering for a catcher. No backstop has driven in 100 runs since Victor Martinez in 2004 (101).

Buster Posey drove in 103 runs in 2012, but he also played 29 games at first base that year and only 111 behind the plate.

In fact, Contreras is off to a similar start to his career as Martinez and Miguel Cabrera among Venzuelan-born players:

And Contreras has also done it in a premium spot in the lineup, settling in as the No. 4 hitter now behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo:

He's been a one-man wrecking crew:

Take any stretch of games and his numbers just looks insane:

It's still only the first week of August and any talk of Contreras being the NL MVP is a little overblown right now. 

But with these last seven weeks, he's at least earned a spot in the conversation.

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

MILWAUKEE – “Yeah, that really killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” John Lackey said sarcastically late Friday night, dismissing a question about what’s happened to the Cubs since the Milwaukee Brewers made their statement against the defending World Series champs two weekends ago. “Come on, dude, it’s 162 games. Things happen.”

The Cubs are 9-1 since then, but Lackey was in no mood to talk about this finishing kick in the National League Central race, probably because manager Joe Maddon gave him the quick hook in a Big Boy Game, pulling him with a runner on and no outs in the fifth inning. But that’s what’s happening here, the Cubs sprinting away from the Brewers and peaking at the right time.

The Brewers are gasping for air after these pulsating back-to-back nights at Miller Park, the Cubs again coming from behind to win in 10 innings and close in on their second straight division title and third playoff appearance in a row, something this franchise hasn’t done since the run capped by the 1908 World Series title repeat.

After a hard-earned 5-4 win, the Cubs knocked the Brewers back to third place and chopped the magic number to eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals down to five, meaning the clinch party could be in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse next week.

“We played fine that series, actually,” Lackey said, referencing three games where the Cubs lost 2-0, 15-2 and 3-1, allowing the Brewers and Cardinals within two games of first place. “S---, you can lose in this league and still play good. That’s why it’s the big leagues.”

Actually, it looks like the Cubs responded to the challenge from an upstart team, the crowd of 40,116 and a playoff environment.

“It’s been amazing,” Carl Edwards Jr. said. “It actually felt like last year’s World Series when I came in the 10th inning.”

Edwards notched the last five outs this time – with All-Star closer Wade Davis unavailable because he did the same thing the night before – part of a group effort that included a guy whose right elbow hadn’t allowed him to pitch since Sept. 8 (Hector Rondon) and a lefty swingman who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning three days ago against the Tampa Bay Rays (Mike Montgomery).

Lackey’s response when asked about the bullpen’s performance – three runs allowed in 11 innings – halfway through a four-game showdown: “They’ve been asked to do a lot…and they’ve really stepped up and done a great job.”

“In order to win, you’re going to need contributions from non-All-Star players at times,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re going to have to get contributions from players stepping up because of someone else’s bad performance or someone else’s injury.

“You want your best players to play best in these situations. But ultimately that won’t always happen. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re going to need some contributions from other guys.”

That’s been crucial for the 2017 Cubs. The game-winning run scored when Tommy La Stella – the pinch-hitter who had been dealing with a groin injury recently and personal issues that led him to walk away from the organization last summer – drew a bases-loaded walk against All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

If you want to see a grinding approach for October, just look at Jon Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat against Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning, which led to a leadoff single, Ben Zobrist’s two-run single up the middle and a 4-3 lead after Lackey’s slow start.

Yeah, the Cubs look locked in now.

“I’m so proud of the way our guys (respond),” Maddon said. “They get hit a little bit, maybe something to the solar plexus, but we still keep going.”

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez broke the code of silence when he mentioned to reporters the latest thing for a Cubs team that designed a Party Room for their state-of-the-art clubhouse at Wrigley Field, turned Jason Heyward’s Rain Delay Speech into World Series mythology and interviews each other in the dugout for pretend TV segments after hitting home runs.

“He doesn’t know how the Italian way works,” Anthony Rizzo said. “There are supposed to be team things that stay with the team.”

Baez let it slip before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, replaying the dramatic 10-inning comeback victory from the night before at Miller Park. If you see the Cubs instantly disappear from the dugout, or a TV camera shows a shot of an empty dugout…    

“We got this new thing,” Baez said. “I don’t want to be the one saying it. I’ll just let him say it. But it’s really fun. When somebody’s mad, everybody walks in and we do some fun things that get us hyper. You guys ask Rizzo.”

The Godfather gave a cryptic response. Omerta is expected to be part of The Cubs Way.

“It’s a team retreat,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just me. It’s anyone who needs to let out some steam this late in the season. It’s a team thing. It’s a long season and you go through ups and downs. And there’s times where you get to that boiling point where you just want to kill anything in your way.”

Rizzo needed to vent and called his teammates into the visiting clubhouse on Thursday night after striking out with two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game that could swing the National League Central race.

“Throughout the year, you go back in the tunnel probably 25 times,” Rizzo said. “You got to take it out somewhere. You can only stay sane so long. It’s September. It’s a team (thing) now.

“It’s worked. We’re 3-for-3 on it. But it’s not me gathering. It’s just whoever feels like it’s time – you’ll see the team rushing off the bench and going for a nice little retreat.”

In many ways, Rizzo sets the clubhouse tone with his laid-back vibe off the field and intense competitive streak on the field. Tom Verducci’s book, “The Cubs Way,” detailed a scene before last year’s World Series Game 7 where Rizzo got naked, played “Rocky” music, quoted movie lines and shadowboxed until reliever Hector Rondon joined “in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.”

“This is strictly in-game,” Rizzo said. “You can’t do it, though, and be selfish and go on a nice little retreat when we’re winning. It’s got to be the right timing. It helps, too, because it’s been fun the last couple weeks since we started doing it.”

One obvious benefit: There are no annoying TV cameras. Like in late July when frustrated pitcher John Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the Wrigley Field dugout and exchanged words with the face-of-the-franchise first baseman.

“We’ve come together now,” Rizzo said. “It’s not about anyone. It’s about us. When things go wrong for a certain individual, we rally around him. And that’s what we got to keep doing from here on out.”