BALTIMORE – Where Kris Bryant laughed off the question that has been asked so many times already during this up-and-down season – “I don’t know” – Willson Contreras made the statement after a three-game sweep where the Cubs overwhelmed the Orioles with power hitting and elite starting pitching: “We are back.”
Those are the fire-and-ice clubhouse dynamics the Cubs still haven’t quite figured out yet after their World Series victory tour. But scoring 27 runs in 27 innings and watching Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana in total control on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards gave Contreras confidence the 46-45 Cubs will finally go on the run everyone keeps waiting for.
“We are back to who we were last year,” Contreras said. “We keep battling every pitch, no matter what the score is. It feels good when you start hitting like that.”
It helped that the Orioles should be trade-deadline sellers and lined up their second-half rotation with three starting pitchers – Kevin Gausman, Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez – who now have ERAs between 5.40 and 7.01.
The day after guiding Arrieta on a night where he again looked more like an All-Star/Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher – the young catcher killed Baltimore’s first-inning rally by throwing out Manny Machado at third base – Contreras went 4-for-5 and synced up with Quintana for seven scoreless innings that featured 12 strikeouts and zero walks.
Coming out of the All-Star break, Contreras is 8-for-14 with a homer, three doubles and four RBI and already on the same page with Quintana after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox.
“Not just me – everyone needed it,” Contreras said. “The rest was needed. Everybody looks focused. Everybody looks like they have a plan with the right approach. We’re not wasting time.”
No longer the rookie catcher, Contreras knows this is becoming his team more and more now that Miguel Montero talked his way out of the clubhouse and Victor Caratini just made his big-league debut. Especially if the Cubs get hot, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer figure to look for a veteran catcher before the July 31 trade deadline.
“The thing about a guy like Caratini – with any young player – I’m always cognizant of not playing him enough (when) he’s still developing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s my only concern there with him, because, listen, he can play. I’m good with him. I like him a lot, not a little bit. But what Willson’s doing right now is so significant…the majority of the playing time should go in his direction.
“With Theo and Jed, they’re going to continue to try to make us better as we get to the deadline here.”
In the meantime, Maddon will try not to run Contreras into the ground.
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” Maddon said. “You always want to – I don’t want to say tone him down – but you just have to be aware of not burning out. You got to be careful, because this guy just might be different. He just might be that guy that always has that fire.”