One of the many unique aspects of baseball is that it’s one of the few professions on earth where someone can nickname a co-worker “Killer,” and it becomes a term of endearment.
But in the case of Willson Contreras, his teammates dubbed him “Killer” because the intensity that he brought to every game played a major role in jolting the Cubs out of their doldrums as they began the second half. Over 23 games from July 14 to August 9, Contreras batted a sizzling .311/.380/.700 with 10 home runs and was the heart and soul of the team’s 15-8 record in that stretch. There was even talk that his play could potentially vault him into the MVP discussion.
So when he pulled up lame trying to beat out a ground ball on August 9th against the Giants, it was immensely deflating. In 2017 Cubs terms, that three seconds felt like a road trip through Los Angeles and San Diego where every game was started by Brett Anderson.
In the wake of Contreras’s strained hamstring, the Chicago sports media offered its typically measured take by putting the injury in proper context and assuaging any undue panic with a thorough statistical analysis of the strengths of the rest of the Cubs roster.
I’m kidding, of course. Here’s a typical take from Steve Rosenbloom:
“The Cubs lost their version of Johnny Bench, which means it’s on Contreras’ teammates to prove they’re the Big Blue Machine they were during their 2016 championship season and not the comparative jalopy that has wheezed and sputtered too often this year.”
Because that’s how baseball works. Got an injury to a key player? Simply turn your team into the same roster that won your last World Series and Voila! Problem solved! It’s a good thing that the Cubs won it all last year because otherwise, Rosenbloom would be proclaiming that the only solution to the Cubs’ woes was Rick Morrissey’s poetry about Báez, Zobrist, and Rizzo.
Rosenbloom tried to challenge several players at once but his biggest target was Kyle Schwarber. In a fit of pique, the Tribune’s sports provocateur demanded that the World Series hero “show why you deserve at bats” and informed him that “Those on base and slugging percentages scare nobody.”
So what kind of on base and slugging numbers did Schwarber produce following the Contreras injury?
.333 and .493.
If those numbers aren’t quite Stephen King territory, they’re still enough to make most pitchers go goth. (And after looking at Max Scherzer’s eyes, who’s to say some of them already haven’t?)
Schwarber was hardly the only hitter to be challenged and answer in a resounding way. Rosenbloom also called out Ian Happ for committing the unforgivable sin of slumping during his rookie year, noting that “we’ve seen he can handle the bat like a veteran, and the Cubs need that now.”
OK. Let’s go back to the stats. Since that fateful day in San Francisco, Happ has slashed .308/.393/.731. Over that span of time, it appears he has indeed handled the bat like a veteran. Assuming that veteran is Frank Robinson.
Happ provided a spark by clubbing seven home runs over that time period and notably fell one hit shy of the cycle against Pittsburgh when he hit what appeared to be MLB’s first ever pantomime triple. Unfortunately, that was also the one night of the week where Wrigley Field’s official scorer was not a member of Mummenshanz.
Of course, it helps the team’s play when their superstars step their performances up too. The day after the Contreras injury, Kris Bryant had three hits in a win against Arizona, the start of a four-day stretch where he went a sublime 11-for-15 with three doubles and two home runs. For good measure, he also raced all the way home from second on a wild pitch, becoming the first Cub to do that this season without the benefit of hair enhancing extensions.
Over this current stretch, Bryant has hit .338/.481/.638. And he’s somehow managed to do it quietly. Maybe that’s an unintended side effect of finally getting everybody to shut up about his injured pinky.
The other half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Company is performing just as well: to the tune of .344/.426/.634. The Cubs have scored in double digits five times over this span of games, and a good part of the reason is because Anthony Rizzo decided to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war on the National League. In those five games in question, Rizzo led the way by going 13-for-21 with four doubles and four home runs, including one where he turned around a fastball that was located on the same level as the word “TONY.”
Then there’s Javy Báez. It’s been a pretty good month for El Mago. There was that weekend where his defense destroyed Canadian morale so thoroughly that it was named an honorary member of Nickelback. And that night he morphed into a Dr. Moreau-esque hybrid of Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series and Michael Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals.
Also, the day when his baserunning from second somehow turned a Kyle Schwarber infield single into the least miraculous part of the play. And that night when he redefined getting picked off by the catcher as “scoring position.” And if that’s somehow not enough, he’s also learning to hit with two strikes.
All in all, Báez set a new record in August by becoming the first Cub in history to appear on the Play of the Game more often than the Budweiser logo.
When Willson Contreras went on the Disabled List, it was fair to wonder who on the Cubs roster would be able to make up for his missing performance. Over the past month, the answer has been clear: just about everyone. While they didn’t take Rosenbloom’s advice to transform into the 2016 World Series winners (which is pretty hard to do in August), the Cubs did respond in the best way possible: by becoming the team we thought they were going to be all along.
Now their reward is that they have to keep doing that for another month. Because as Willson Contreras can attest, sometimes baseball is the biggest Killer of all.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports