MIAMI — Maybe the best Chicago Cubs player to talk to about the team’s latest phenom, young Willson Contreras, is newcomer Ben Zobrist. He wasn’t here last year for the ballyhooed debuts of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. He isn’t used to rookies dominating this way, though it’s old hat for the rest of us.
“I know around here it’s kind of something everyone expects — how well these young guys play — but what he’s done his first week has been nothing short of amazing,” Zobrist said after Contreras drove in three runs in a 5-4 win over the Miami Marlins on Friday. “He’s been incredible.”
Incredible might be an understatement. Contreras has practically carried the Cubs, even though they haven’t been winning as much since he got called up seven days ago. He hit his third home run of the season in the first inning Friday, but the Cubs blew a 4-0 lead and were staring at their fifth consecutive loss before Contreras came through and drove in the go-ahead run with an RBI single in the seventh. Both hits went to right field.
“I always love when a young hitter drives the opposite gap,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That, to me, is one of the most attractive things a young hitter can do. That goes back to my days with Jim Edmonds, Garrett Anderson and Timmy Salmon. … I’d much prefer that and then learn to pull the ball.”
Contreras is hitting .412 with three home runs and eight RBIs, and Friday brought the first multihit game of his young career. His bat is so important right now that Maddon will get him playing time wherever he can find it. Anthony Rizzo is due back Saturday, while Miguel Montero will start at catcher, so expect Contreras in left field, where he took balls before the game Friday. Or maybe he can play second base for Zobrist, who is likely to miss the game because of a contusion on his foot.
“Yes, man,” Contreras said of playing second base. “I’ll play anywhere — even shortstop. But Russell is over there.”
It’s not just a newcomer such as Zobrist who is impressed with Contreras, as his teammates didn’t disagree that what he is doing is kind of Schwarber-esque. The latter player burst onto the scene last year, while the former is taking the league by storm this season.
“He looks like an established big league hitter,” Friday’s starter Kyle Hendricks said. “You saw it tonight. And we need it right now.”
The Cubs need it desperately. They have been one pitch and one big hit short this week, but on Friday, they made the key plays late in the game. Travis Wood covered for a struggling bullpen by pitching nearly two innings, while Hector Rondon earned a four-out save. But all of that — including Bryant’s 18th home run — is overshadowed by a young, confident catcher — turned whatever position he plays next — who is helping the Cubs immensely.
“I told them, once I get here, I don’t want to go back because here is where I want to be,” Contreras said. “I just have the right approach.”
He has the right attitude as well. He repeated several times in his postgame comments how much he wants to help the team and is willing to do anything. Right now, the Cubs are asking him to do everything.
“It’s been a tough week or week-and-a-half,” Zobrist said of the Cubs’ slide. “It’s not been easy on anyone. Everyone battled. You need everyone on the roster at this point. These kinds of wins are good for us.”
Maddon also knows what’s good for his team. Contreras has been so beneficial to the manager that he’s become a metaphor for breathing.
“It’s like oxygen,” the manager said with a smile. “It’s absolutely necessary, the life he’s brought to the group. He has been a catalyst the last several days.”
Breathe it in, Cubs fans. Breathe it in.