After making the All-Star team last season, Willson Contreras slumped in the second half. He vowed to be better and learn from his mistakes.
So far, so good.
Contreras’ bounce-back season is off to a strong start. He had another big game Friday in the Cubs’ 5-1 victory over the Mike Trout-less Angels at Wrigley Field. With the wind blowing out, he went 3-for-4 with two home runs — including his second-longest career homer, a Statcast-estimated 460-foot bomb to Waveland Avenue.
Contreras, who’s now 11-for-33 (.333) with seven walks, nine RBI and five homers, is showing more discipline than ever at the plate. In the past, he said, he would have recklessly swung for the fences if the wind was howling like it was Friday.
“Last year, whenever I saw the wind blowing out, I would just try to hit something in the air or hit a 1,000-foot homer, but it didn’t work out,” said Contreras, who’s already halfway to his home run total from last season just 12 games into this season.
It goes to show how far he has come. Cubs manager Joe Maddon also has noticed a change in Contreras’ demeanor.
“He’s really trying [to control his emotions],” Maddon said. “He still has his moments, but he’s much more subdued, in a sense. But we’ve got to keep him there. This guy is the best — I mean, physically talented best — catcher in the National League.”
Contreras was just as strong behind the plate Friday as he was at it. With catcher Victor Caratini out for at least a month with a broken bone in his left hand, Contreras guided left-hander Cole Hamels through eight innings, the longest by a Cubs starter this season. Even with the wind favoring batters, Hamels’ command was on point; he allowed four hits and one run while retiring six batters and walking zero. The Angels’ lone run came from Albert Pujols, who hit a solo homer in the fourth.
Hamels’ performance was an encore after right-hander Jose Quintana’s impressive seven-inning outing against the Pirates on Thursday. Their back-to-back quality starts were just what the Cubs’ rotation needed after a rocky first two weeks.
“When the game goes quick, you’re given a lot better opportunities to go deeper in a ballgame, and that’s what we’d like to do,” Hamels said. “The bullpen has had to carry some serious load the first couple of weeks, so now it’s our time to finally get into that rhythm, and that was one of the best things to see from Q [on Thursday], what he was able to do. That’s the sort of friendly competition we have on the staff. What we’re really trying to focus on is not overshadowing each other, but trying to promote playing better and trying to get the best out of each other and just trying to raise and elevate our game.”
The Cubs won consecutive games for the first time this season. Afterward, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit a two-run homer in the first, said he’s happy to see the starting pitchers improving and getting into the flow of the season.
“It’s nice to win a few now, settle in now,” Rizzo said. “Guys get clean outings, get some knocks, kind of cross out all the checklist of beginning-of-the-season stuff. . . . [If] we pitch like we do and we continue to have good at-bats, it’s a good form of success.”