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Willson Contreras nearly catches, slugs Cubs to comeback victory

Willson Contreras exults after homering to tie the game in the ninth inning. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS — There were bigger, buzzier storylines, no doubt about that, as the Cubs opened their season against the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cubs’ first real game since winning the World Series aside, there was the reunion with new Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler and the promise of instant excitement from Fowler’s successor in the leadoff hole, Kyle Schwarber. There was the matchup of starting pitchers Jon Lester and Carlos Martinez. As always, there was the megawatt star power provided by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs’ crew of All-Stars.

Yet young catcher Willson Contreras forced his way to the forefront in the Cubs’ 4-3 defeat and nearly stole the show as the hero of the game.

On a tough night for the Cubs’ hitters, Contreras singled against the dominant Martinez to start an eighth-inning rally that died when Bryant and Rizzo each left the bases loaded. Then with two on and one out in the ninth, Contreras blasted a home run to left against closer Seung-Hwan Oh, thrilling the Cubs fans still in the rain-splattered seats at Busch Stadium.

‘‘Great at-bat,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘The ball really did jump right there. You know that he’s a force behind the plate and at the plate. I’m really pleased with what he did. I thought he did a great job behind the plate, also.’’

Contreras helped guide Lester — who had David Ross as a batterymate all last season — through some bumpy waters. The left-hander lasted only five-plus innings, allowing seven hits and walking two, but he limited the damage to a single run. Seven strikeouts certainly helped.

‘‘Willy did great,’’ Lester said. ‘‘He’s going to be fine. He did a great job with our staff last year, adjusting to new guys and adjusting on the fly. Now all of us got to spend a full spring with him, myself included.

‘‘Willy is going to be fine. He’s talented. He’s smart enough. He knows what’s going on back there. He’ll handle this staff just fine

going forward.’’

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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