Of all the words, gestures and uniformed personnel that filled the infield during the bench-clearing incident Monday night at Wrigley Field, the most telling take might have come from former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, now a TV analyst, during the Braves broadcast — and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras’ response.
After Contreras got into it with catcher Tyler Flowers and gestured to the Braves’ bench upon hitting a home run in the second inning during the Cubs’ 8-3 victory, Francoeur said Contreras “is lucky he didn’t get decked.”
As the benches emptied in a quickly dispersed incident, Francoeur went on to recall a stare-down he had with Contreras during Contreras’ rookie year in 2016, Francoeur’s last in the majors.
“Now looking back on it when you’re done, quite frankly, I wish I’d have just thrown the haymaker and been done with it,” Francoeur, 35, opined.
Blame Contreras for overreacting to Flowers butting into Contreras’ conversation with plate umpire John Tumpane over a 1-1 call during that at-bat — or overreacting to the quick-pitch fastball he got on the next pitch that he was able to put in the basket.
But anyone who hasn’t seen a different emotional tenor in Contreras this season after making that a priority over the winter doesn’t know much about the player likely to start a second consecutive All-Star Game in two weeks.
“He plays with that chip on his shoulder, and sometimes things like tonight happen,” said veteran left-hander Jon Lester, who earned the victory with six strong innings. “You’ll see that sometimes from him, but not in a negative way. I don’t think that was a negative thing.”
At the very least, Contreras was not looking for any haymakers.
He paused when told of Francoeur’s comments after the game, then snorted a laugh.
“That makes me laugh. What can I say about that?” said Contreras, who also singled home a run in the fourth and drove in another on a grounder in the Cubs’ five-run fifth.
“Poor guy. Just a poor guy, man. He should behave as a professional. He was a ballplayer; he played a lot [12 years] in the big leagues. He should have respect for everyone. He knows better. He knows how things go on the field. . . . He’s a poor guy.”
Contreras also touched on his dispute with Flowers.
“I just told him to do his job, and I’ll do mine,” Contreras said. “I don’t know why he got [ticked] off. He’s great behind the plate, but those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone. And he got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation.”
Flowers said he thought Contreras was showing up Braves pitcher Julio Teheran and called his actions “unnecessary.”
“The guy’s a decent hitter,’’ Flowers said. ‘‘He doesn’t need to complain about every call. Sometimes you need to pick your battles, and hopefully that’s something he’ll learn as he gets a little older.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon called the whole thing “benign” and said it “amused” him.
Lester said Contreras has grown plenty.
“And I think eventually that chip will get a little less and less every year,” he said. “And he’ll just settle into being the perennial All-Star catcher that we all expect to see.”
Whether the flared emotions led to any of the offensive fireworks for the Cubs, it was as much life as they’ve shown during a limp homestand that has included series splits with the also-ran White Sox and the dysfunctional Mets.
“I think it’s obvious that the last five weeks have been a little bit of a flatter period for us,” team president Theo Epstein said before the game. “We haven’t played great. The record shows it; the run differential shows it. Just watching us play, we’re not playing quite as clean baseball or as locked-in baseball.”
Maybe the first sight of the Braves since the Cubs’ ugly season-opening road trip inspired a more locked-in mindset. The Cubs were swept in Atlanta in a series that included another brief bench-clearing incident after a hard slide by David Bote.
A locked-in Lester might have had something to do with it, too.
Lester, who lives about 40 minutes outside of Atlanta in the offseason, pitched six innings without allowing an earned run for only his second quality start in his last eight.
He’d allowed seven home runs in his previous three starts, including a career-high three June 13 in Los Angeles.
But he allowed only one extra-base hit — a double — and didn’t walk a batter, and the two unearned runs he allowed scored on a two-out single in the sixth after an error earlier in the inning.
“The good thing about him is when he goes through a stretch where he struggles a little bit, he’s really good at ultimately pinpointing the reason why,” Epstein said, “whether it’s mechanical or something with his pitch mix or approach, something on the mental side.”