SAN DIEGO -- Raise your hand if you had Chicago Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras as big-time playoff participants this season. To be more specific, raise your hand if back in spring training, you had that combination doing big things this fall. If you’re being honest, your hand is at your side.
That’s the beauty of baseball. Players emerge over time, and now it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t think these two will be counted on come October. Hendricks isn’t really an upset -- he started in the playoffs last season -- but Contreras has taken the league by storm at the hardest position to break in at, especially at midseason.
“We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts,” Hendricks said of himself and Contreras after the Cubs' 6-3 win over the Padres on Wednesday. “It’s been easy.”
It wasn’t as easy for Hendricks as it has been, as he allowed the leadoff man to reach in each of the first four innings, but that adversity might come in handy come the postseason, when it is going to be more difficult than it is in any regular-season game.
“You learn from the good. You learn from the bad,” Hendricks said. “In the playoffs, you’re going to have both. You have to learn how to deal with both those things.”
"Dealing" with the good might be easier, but you learn more from the bad. Hendricks’ signature moment Wednesday came in the third inning. The tying run was on third base with no outs before the righty induced two popups and a called third strike on an 89 mph fastball to Ryan Schimpf to end the threat. The Padres never did tie the game.
“My command was a little off, but my two-seamer was just moving a lot,” Hendricks said. “A couple of those I made some bad pitches. ... The biggest at-bat was when I had [Wil] Myers at third base there, and I got two popups.”
There was no hesitation between Hendricks and Contreras, even during those moments of adversity. That's a change from when Contreras first came up. On Tuesday night, he caught a nearly unhittable Jake Arrieta, then just a few hours later, he dealt with Hendricks, who was less than perfect.
The baseball student who moved to the neighborhood in the middle of the school year might be ready for the next step: starting catcher in the playoffs for the best team in baseball. Manager Joe Maddon reeled off his latest accomplishments.
“Holding the edges on Hendricks, being able to handle the really wild movement of Arrieta. He’s done both of those things,” the manager said. “This guy, he’s a machine.”
We haven’t even gotten to the fun stuff with Contreras. On Monday, the Padres were aggressive on the base paths, but on Tuesday, Travis Jankowski got caught wandering off third base, and Contreras promptly picked him off. It was the third time he’s done that to a runner during his short stay in the big leagues. On Wednesday, the Padres stopped running, and Contreras hit a no-doubt home run to the opposite field. He’s showing that he can do it all.
“I was waiting for someone to run,” Contreras said with a half-smile. “They didn’t run.”
Whether or not the Cubs did it on purpose, bringing the rookie up as early as they did is proving to be a very smart move. If they had waited until late July or August, there would be more doubts about his experience during the pennant stretch. But we’re in the stretch run now, and Contreras is handling things just fine -- and with some flair.
“That was an amazing pickoff,” he said of Tuesday’s play. “I’m way more comfortable now. The first two weeks, everything sped up to me.”
As the game slows down for Contreras, he continues to play fast. His throws to first make Anthony Rizzo wince when he catches them, and there is no easy ground ball out when the rookie puts the ball in play. Taking after a mentor, Miguel Montero, Contreras even runs to first base on walks. He’s high-energy all the time.
“This team is like a family,” Contreras said. “I’m just going day-by-day right now.”
Contreras even has his clichés down. That’s OK because his performance is speaking volumes. It starts on defense, but when he revs up his bat speed, he can do some damage.
“That was loud,” Maddon said of Contreras' eighth home run. “That was really loud.”