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.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

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.”

The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

Let's go live to video of opposing pitchers trying to get Cubs hitters out in the second half:

Following Wednesday's 8-2 thrashing of the Atlanta Braves, the Cubs' offensive numbers through their six-game winning streak are eye-popping:

AVG: .315
OBP: .370
SLG: .609
OPS: .979
R/GM: 7.33
HR: 16
XBH: 33
H: 71
AVG w/RISP: .339
Run differential: +27

The average with runners in scoring position is the big one as the Cubs have collected 21 hits in 62 at-bats in such situations in the second half.

That was the biggest weakness for the Cubs offense as they spent part of the first half ranking dead last in baseball hitting with runners in scoring position.

For the first five games of the second half, it's been Willson Contreras keying the offensive charge. But with "Willy" on the bench Wednesday and Kris Bryant forced to leave in the first inning with an injured finger, it was Javy Baez, Addison Russell and Mike Montgomery — yes, really — driving the offense.

The trio combined for seven hits, six RBI, three runs, three doubles and two homers.

Montgomery's first career homer was an absolute blast:

That shot was 99.9 mph exit velocity and flew 393 feet. It also ensured the Cubs have truly won the trade with the Seattle Mariners from 364 days ago:

Baez has been a monster of late, too, with four straight multi-hit efforts to raise his season average 23 points to .275 with a .797 OPS. He has 10 hits in his last 15 at-bats, including a pair of doubles and two homers.

Baez's three-run blast in the eighth really put it out of reach for the Cubs Wednesday:

In the second half alone, Contreras, Russell and Baez have combined to raise their collective OPS 141 points:

This is more like it.

The Cubs went into this season thinking they had a strong, young offensive nucleus — a group of guys that would hammer the opposition on a nightly basis with an American League-style lineup.

It hasn't played out that way, but maybe things are starting to shift. Contreras, Russell and Baez are huge keys for the rest of the season. We know Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are gonna hit, Kyle Schwarber (.887 OPS in July) also seems to be a different guy at the plate since making his return from Triple-A Iowa.

Now if only Ben Zobrist can truly get going atop the order...

Willson Contreras sees Cubs playing with fire again: ‘We are back’

Willson Contreras sees Cubs playing with fire again: ‘We are back’

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.    

[MORE: As advertised: Jose Quintana stars in Cubs debut

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.”