Willson Contreras

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.

MLB suspends Willson Contreras for two games after ejection; appeal filed

MLB suspends Willson Contreras for two games after ejection; appeal filed

Willson Contreras is facing a two-game suspension from Major League Baseball for his actions Friday at Wrigley Field.

Contreras filed an appeal and he is in the lineup Saturday for an important game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Depending on how long the MLB takes to process the appeal, Contreras may also be able to play in Sunday's game.

"We'll just wait for the appeal to work its way through," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We haven't decided anything beyond that. We'll abide by that, try to figure it out and make the best of it."

The young catcher was thrown out of Friday's game in the fifth inning after he and John Lackey exploded on home plate umpire Jordan Baker following a blown strike three call. 

Immediately after the call, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez lined an RBI single to right center to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead. 

As Lackey ran in to cover home on the play, he was thrown out. Contreras was thrown out a few seconds later and slammed his catcher's mask down in frustration. The mask bounced and hit Baker, which Contreras insisted was accidental and apologized for after the game.

Does it help that Contreras was contrite about the incident after the game?

"I would hope so," Maddon said. "He was. Listen, he's a wonderful young man. He is emotional. We're all working on attempting to help him curb that a bit. But you don't want to take it all away either. That's a big part of why he's so good. That was a little bit difficult yesterday; I understand that. He does play with his hair on fire."

It was that mask incident that weighed heavily on the MLB's decision to suspend Contreras. He was also fined an undisclosed amount.

Lackey only received a fine and did not make contact with Baker at all.

Maddon and the Cubs are trying to reign in Contreras' emotional style a bit, but they also love the passion in which he plays the game, so they're not trying to go too far in the other direction and lose what makes him so good as a ballplayer. But moving forward, the Cubs know it's important Contreras picks his spots, especially given how important the relationship between catcher and home plate umpire is.

"You're a catcher man, you're working in front of these guys all the time," Maddon said. "Listen, I really believe you're gonna see a nice progression of him. He's still gonna get upset at times. But you're still gonna see a nice progression of him not go from 0-to-60 like that.

"Like I said though, there's a part of it I do like. Just the fact that he does play with that emotion, we love that. But there's a way to curb that a bit. I think as he gets older, he'll do that."

Maddon admitted Friday was a learning experience for the dynamic backstop, but the Cubs manager also made sure to point out Contreras' upbringing in Venezuela and how he wasn't playing baseball in America full-time until 2011.

"We didn't come from where he came from, either," Maddon said. "What's going on in that country right now, it's a different method. To walk a mile — even a hundred feet, a hundred yards in his shoes — I've never done that. So I think it's my responsibilty, our responsibility to continue to talk to him to explain why it's probably a better method to not.

"To still be able to play with that kind of passion and enthusiasm, but when it comes to that moment, let the breathing part get away, walk away, turn your back. Those kinds of things are the kinds of things we're gonna have to get incorporated over the next several years. But, I love his passion. I love his emotion. I love all that stuff. Just with the maturation process, you'll see it come back a little bit."

Are Maddon and the Cubs coaches trying to corral Lackey's temper at all?

"That's impossible," Maddon said. "Willson's in his early 20s. Johnny's almost 40. He's a dad with kids. I would never tell him what to do."

John Lackey and Willson Contreras go absolutely bonkers on home plate umpire after insane call in Cubs-Cardinals

John Lackey and Willson Contreras go absolutely bonkers on home plate umpire after insane call in Cubs-Cardinals

John Lackey sprinted toward home plate, absolutely screaming at home plate umpire Jordan Baker.

Willson Contreras did a complete circle around Baker, needing both Joe Maddon and Javy Baez to hold him back.

Those will become the lasting images from an absolutely wild occurrence at Wrigley Field Friday afternoon.

Lackey was on the mound in the fifth inning against Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez, locked in a 1-1 ballgame with runners on first and second and two outs.

On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Lackey floated a breaking ball right down the middle of the plate. Martinez put his head down and started walking toward the dugout, conceding to the strikeout.

But Baker did not call the pitch a strike. Instead, it was Ball 3 and Martinez had new life.

Lackey wasted no time laying into Baker, screaming and pointing at Martinez, who was several steps toward the first-base dugout. 

"He almost walked to the grass," Lackey said. "He knew he was out."

For reference, here is where the pitch was located:

Contreras and Maddon both said the second-year catcher got crossed up on the pitch and wasn't expecting a breaking ball, but Lackey said there was no cross-up.

Lackey continued screaming at Baker and Maddon came from out of the dugout in an effort to calm things down.

"He missed the pitch," Lackey said. "It's a big spot in a huge game and he missed the pitch."

Lackey remained in the game, but on his next pitch, Martinez singled to right-center, plating Kolten Wong with the go-ahead run. Lackey sprinted in to backup the play at home, yelling at Baker the whole way. 

When the play was over and time called, Contreras also apparently said something to Baker and was subsequently tossed, resulting in this immediate reaction:

Maddon was already on his way out of the dugout and tried to hold Contreras back before Baez intervened and kept his teammate back.

Contreras' mask bounced and hit Baker in the foot, but the Cubs catcher apologized afterwards and said he clearly wasn't trying to hit or hurt anybody, just was frustrated in the moment and threw his mask on the ground, never intending for it to hit the umpire.

The end result was both pitcher and catcher ejected in the fifth inning of a crucial game in the pennant race. But the Cubs rebounded with seven runs in the sixth inning, cruising to an 8-2 victory. While the Cubs didn't place too much emphasis on the ejections working as a spark, Kris Bryant felt otherwise:

"It was a nice little spark for us and some energy that we all needed," Bryant said. "Yeah, the crowd got into it. I mean, we're always in the game, but anytime you see your teammates or brothers going out like that, getting a little fired up, it's not a terrible thing. I think it ultimately helped us."

Lackey is 38 years old and in his 14th big-league season, but he's always been a fierce competitor and Maddon knows he should never expect any other reaction to an umpire's call.

"Impossible," Maddon said. "I could say I'd like to see that, but why would I even think that? That's the definition of insanity. Why would I think he's gonna change in that particular moment? So God bless him.

"It's who Johnny is. I never want him to change. He's not gonna change, so why even expect that? It happened, we reacted and the rest of the group came together."

Does Lackey regret his actions?

"Not really, no," he said. "It's a pretty big spot right there. It cost me a big-league win; those don't grow on trees."