Chicago Cubs

How Cubs react without Willson Contreras will define their season

How Cubs react without Willson Contreras will define their season

Cubs manager Joe Maddon finished the sentence before the reporter could get out the entire question: When something like this happens with a player like Willson Contreras, can that have…

“A galvanizing effect,” Maddon said during Wednesday’s postgame media briefing at AT&T Park, where he had a glass of Big Smooth red wine waiting after a potentially devastating loss to the San Francisco Giants. “Absolutely.”

Uh, or maybe go the other way? It spoke to Maddon’s glass-half-full optimism and savvy way of playing offense with the media. It also sounded a little out of touch in the middle of a season where his perceptions haven’t necessarily matched the realities of a disappointing team.  

“I think something like this – for as bad as it seems on the surface – actually could galvanize the group,” Maddon said. “They know that he’s not here right now. They know how important he’s been to us. And now other guys realize: ‘Hey, let’s go, we have to pick up the slack.’

“I’ve seen it before, where your best player in that moment goes down and all of a sudden everybody else elevates their game a bit. That’s what I’m looking to see.”

We’ll see. The Cubs announced the diagnosis before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field: Contreras will likely be sidelined four-to-six weeks with a strained right hamstring. Suboptimal as Maddon might say, but also not the worst-case scenario feared when it looked like this could be a season-ending injury.

“It’s been that kind of year,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “Guys going down, somebody else has to come in and step up. That’s why we have so much depth on this team.

“We just got to stick with our approach, stay with what this locker room does. Work on the at-bats, go pitch-to-pitch on the mound and kind of go from there and just win ballgames.”   

Even with Contreras becoming the kind of two-way catcher whose name could show up in the National League MVP voting, the Cubs have lost three straight series after their 13-3 run between the All-Star break and the July 31 trade deadline.

It sounds like Maddon is still searching for the right buttons to push with a 59-54 team that is up only three games on the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates, with the St. Louis Cardinals rising and the Milwaukee Brewers fading.

“The clubhouse has been great,” Maddon said. “The dugout’s been great. We just haven’t played well. We have not played with the same kind of efficiency that we had been playing with coming out of the break.

“Pitching (has been) great. Defense – we still got to make plays. And overall, offensively, we need more consistency out of more people to get this whole thing done.

“We came out with a lot of energy, played well post-break. Now we are just getting back into that thing where we have to push ourselves mentally more than anything to get over the hump.

“We got to somehow almost like kind of will yourself to win. We just can’t make the mistakes that we’re making that permits the other team to gain an edge.”

Hoping for Hawk Harrelson’s will to win to appear in the middle of August? How the Cubs react to the Contreras news, handle the pennant-race pressure and perform over the next 49 games will ultimately define their season.

As exciting and as valuable as Contreras has been this year – and central to that World Series run – he still has not played a full season in the big leagues yet.   

The Cubs still have a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant), a Silver Slugger (Anthony Rizzo) and a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in the middle of their lineup. The Cubs have a former Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) in their rotation and an All-Star closer (Wade Davis) looming in the ninth inning.

Javier Baez and Jason Heyward are two of the best defenders in the game. Cy Young Award finalists Jon Lester and Hendricks fronted the playoff rotation for a 103-win team last year. That group made a point to have “We Never Quit” engraved on the championship rings.

“Everybody’s got to take it on themselves, more ownership,” Hendricks said. “Just take care of their job, what they got to do. We got to have a few guys step up.”

The last time the Cubs faced Homer Bailey, Anthony Rizzo became the face of the franchise


The last time the Cubs faced Homer Bailey, Anthony Rizzo became the face of the franchise

How's this for a #WayBackWednesday?

Homer Bailey — the Cincinnati Reds' starting pitcher Wednesday night — has dealt with arm injuries the last few years, meaning the last time he faced the Cubs was July 10, 2014.

The only holdover from that lineup three years ago is Anthony Rizzo:

The full lineup:

1. Chris Coghlan - LF
2. Arismendy Alcantara - 2B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Starlin Castro - SS
5. Luis Valbuena - 3B
6. Ryan Sweeney - CF
7. Nate Schierholtz - RF
8. John Baker - C
9. Kyle Hendricks - P

Yep, that was Mr. Hendricks' MLB debut. He gave up four runs in six innings before a bullpen combination of James Russell, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon and Blake Parker shut down the Reds to give the Cubs a 6-4 victory in 12 innings.

But that's not all. 

That was the same day Anthony Rizzo tried to take on the entire Reds roster after Aroldis Chapman struck out Schierholtz with a 103 mph pitch close to his head:

Rizzo emerged as a leader that day, willing to take on an entire team to back his own roster and stick up for his guys. That was the year before the Cubs made the playoffs and to that point, Rizzo had only been a part of losing teams. But he put the Cubs on his back starting that fateful day in Cincinnati, the last time Bailey faced the Cubs.

Alcantara — who is now in the Reds system and was just outrighted to Double-A this week — had four hits and drove in three runs in that game while Valbuena drove in the winning runs with a two-out triple in the top of the 12th. The Cubs finished 73-89 in 2014 under Ricky Renteria, who got a World Series ring from the Cubs last month for all the work he did in 2014.

Since that day, the Cubs have ended their championship drought (obviously) thanks in part to Chapman and Rizzo has become the unquestioned face of the franchise and one of the top players in baseball.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel.  The Cubs manage just a single run after scoring 15 the night before.  Does Joe Maddon deserve criticism for his late-game decisions? 

Everybody is fired up about Mitch Trubisky except for Mitch Trubisky. When will the hype become reality and he gets the starting nod?

Plus Dwyane Wade is reportedly set to accept a buyout and Jerry Reinsdorf wouldn’t hire Ozzie Guillen to be his manager ever again.

Listen to the full epidsode here