Cubs’ Willson Contreras might return in September, counting on October

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CHICAGO, IL - JULY 23: Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the sixth inning at Wrigley Field on July 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Cubs catcher Willson Contreras doesn’t know if his hamstring will heal fast enough to put him back in the Cubs’ lineup by the end of September.

But he seemed certain Friday about having a role to play for this team in October.

“I just hope that my teammates keep doing their job to [keep] the team in first place,” said Contreras, who was put on the disabled list Friday with a “moderate strain” to his right hamstring. “I feel like we’re going to make the playoffs, and I’ll be here supporting them.

“This team is really special. We don’t give. I’m hoping to be back before the end of the season. If I’m going to be back for the playoffs, that’s going to be a lot better.”

Contreras, who suffered the injury running out a grounder Wednesday in San Francisco, is expected to miss four to six weeks – a timeline that could put him back on the field for the final three series of the year, which includes eight games against Milwaukee and St. Louis.

But the high-energy Contreras also said he doesn’t plan to return until he feels sure he can play at his usual “120 percent” level.

“I’m not going to rush anything. I’m going to take my time,” he said. “I just talked to the doctor, and he told me to take it slow because he knows my game and he knows how I like to play.”

Contreras is expected to be limited to playing catch and maybe some light swings in the batting cage for the next two weeks as the medical staff waits for him to be pain-free. At that point, he’s expected to begin more rigorous rehab work and have a better idea when he might return to the lineup.

The team’s hottest hitter for more than a month, Contreras, 25, was batting .274 with 21 homers and 70 RBIs in 102 games this season.

He said by Thursday he was able to walk normally and on Friday felt “way better.”

Meanwhile, The Cubs nursed a one-game division lead into its series opener Friday against playoff-contender Arizona without its top hitter over the past month.

Recently acquired veteran Alex Avila started behind the plate Friday and is expected to get most of the playing time in Contreras’ absence, although manager Joe Maddon said he’s keeping an open mind about possibly giving rookie Victor Caratini more than an occasional start.

Caratini, who debuted in late June, was recalled Friday to fill Contreras’ roster spot.

“We’re going to miss him, but we’ve got a lot of confidence in this lineup, too,” left fielder/emergency catcher Kyle Schwarber said. “The good thing is that as a group if somebody goes down we always pick him back up.”

Contreras’ ability to neutralize the opponents’ running game is a major loss, especially against the aggressive Diamondbacks this weekend.

Replacing his bat in the cleanup spot, protecting Anthony Rizzo, could be just as challenging.

In 31 games batting fourth – most of that in the last six weeks – Contreras is hitting .305 with 13 home runs, 35 RBIs and a 1.060 OPS.

“Pretty outstanding,” said Maddon, who had Ben Zobrist batting cleanup Friday. “So there’s a different dynamic for Rizzo to deal with right now. In the past you’ve seen all the good work that Zo’s capable of doing there, too, so we’ll see.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to not have his name in the lineup tonight after all the wonderful things he’s done all year, and especially since the All-Star break what he’s meant to us, even his energy,” Maddon added. “But the reality is he’s not here right now.

“In a perverse way sometimes when that occurs, other people just come to the forefront.”

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