How hard can Cubs lean on catcher Contreras without veteran backup?

ATLANTA — Willson Contreras had a monster series at the plate right out of the All-Star break in Baltimore, and he seems willing to play every day as the Cubs try to make their second-half move on the first-place Brewers.

With no veteran catcher in sight after Miguel Montero was jettisoned three weeks ago, it might even seem tempting for manager Joe Maddon to lean harder than ever on the energetic, second-year workhorse.

“I’ve got to be careful,” said Maddon, who nonetheless expects to lean hard on Contreras during the anticipated pennant race, with untested rookie Victor Caratini as the only non-emergency backup.

“Without running him into the ground. I’m looking to guard against fatigue.”

Willson Contreras "just might be that guy that always has that fire," says his manager.

Maddon said he likes Caratini — “a lot, not a little bit” — and is fine chasing October with a catching tandem with barely a full season of big-league experience combined.

Caratini is expected to start Tuesday, when John Lackey makes his return from the disabled list (plantar fasciitis).

Team president Theo Epstein said he expects to troll the market for good veteran catching leading up to the July 31 trade deadline but won’t settle for less than a strong fit. And Maddon isn’t asking for outside help, at least publicly.

If that means the Cubs pile more innings on Contreras’ legs than they might if they had a more proven backup, Contreras said he’s ready to play more.

“Of course,” said Contreras, who started five games in the World Series as a rookie last fall. “He makes the decisions. I want to play. And I know that Victor has to play.”

Maddon paid especially close attention to Contreras on Sunday, when he started on a hot afternoon after back-to-back night games.

“He had the same energy about him during the course of the game,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘It’s a beautiful thing to watch. You just have to be aware of not burning him out. You’ve got to be careful because this guy just might be different. He just might be that guy who always has that fire that’s obvious.”

That’s the point, said Contreras, who expected to pick up more responsibility with Montero’s departure. His past year of learning under fire might prepare him for it.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” he said of the difference since last year. “I just want to play with energy. We need that energy for the second half. It’s going to be there.”

Perfect pitch for Hendricks

In his second and final minor-league rehab assignment, right-hander Kyle Hendricks retired all 15 batters he faced Monday night in a Class AA game for Tennessee.

He struck out three and threw 63 pitches and is expected to rejoin the Cubs’ rotation during the upcoming homestand.

Hendricks has been on the DL since June 5 because of tendinitis in the back of his right hand, near the base of his middle finger.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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