PHOENIX -- When injured Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras made an appearance in the dugout during the game Friday, he had to have been impressed with what he was seeing. The team said it would rally in Contreras' absence, and that's exactly what it did in beating the Arizona Diamondbacks, 8-3.
And in the middle of all the action was Contreras' replacement, veteran Alex Avila.
"Guys have to pick up the slack over the course of time that he's out," Avila said after hitting a sixth-inning home run. "Today we were able to do that."
Avila's long ball came immediately after Kyle Schwarber hit his 19th of the season. He's a middle-of-the order bat that the Cubs could really use while Contreras mends his right hamstring.
"It was a really good offensive day today and baserunning day as well," Schwarber said.
It wasn't just the long ball that won the game for the Cubs. In fact, other than the two home runs, the Cubs tallied nine singles and five walks to pull away from the Diamondbacks, who had just won a series over the Cubs in Chicago. Javy Baez went from first to home on a hit-and-run while the Cubs took full advantage of Arizona miscues.
If manager Joe Maddon was looking for signs his team was past the emotional letdown of losing its hottest player, he got it. The middle of the field got a heavy workout from Cubs hitters, especially late in the game as Chicago added three runs in the eighth.
"Look at the at-bats," Maddon said. "Kris Bryant might be finding that little niche in his swing. That looked powerful and familiar tonight."
Bryant was on base five times Friday though he called dealing with his ongoing pinkie injury "brutal." He can add another ailment as after the game Bryant was wearing a patch on his left elbow, where he was hit by a pitch. He also walked and singled three times.
It wasn't just the team that played well. Maddon also had a better game than his counterpart, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo. Lovullo waited too long before pulling starter Taijuan Walker, who came out for the sixth to face three lefties despite having already thrown 100 pitches. That's when Schwarber and Avila pounced.
"He made a couple mistakes and we were able to hit them hard," Avila said. "That's really it. You try to get the pitcher to get the ball in the middle of the plate and hit his mistakes."
The high pitch count was a result of solid early game at-bats, including a first inning that resulted in two runs, one via a walk to Avila with the bases loaded.
Maddon wouldn't make the same mistake with John Lackey, pulling him in the sixth with a 5-3 lead after he gave up his second home run in as many innings. Though the conversation on the mound lasted a few extra seconds, there was no talking Maddon out of making the move. Normally, that might cause some consternation with Lackey -- and perhaps it did -- but the Cubs have bigger fish to fry than getting their pitcher through a couple of extra outs.
"He did his job," Maddon said. "My message to him is by not throwing too many pitches now he's going to be strong the rest of the year."
Lackey is 5-0 since the All-Star break while silencing his many first-half critics.
Maddon made the right moves with his bullpen as well, getting Justin Wilson out of the game before it was too late. Wilson still is finding his way with his new team, but just like the hitters in regard to Contreras, the rest of the relief staff picked up the new guy. And besides, the trade with the Tigers already is paying off because Avila seemingly can handle the bigger role just fine. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Avila is the second catcher this season to execute a sacrifice bunt and hit a home run in the same game. The other?
"Having Alex is a huge deal for us," Lackey said. "We have a veteran guy that's been through this situation before. He's going to be able to fit right in there and be fine.
"Alex is a pro. He's a good hitter. And good hitters usually call pretty good games."
So think about it, in the first game without Conteras -- who's expected to miss a month -- the Cubs' starting pitcher held down a good offense, the team's relief staff did similar, the lineup had contributions from many pieces and the manager made solid decisions. You can even include the front office in the win. The staff didn't just settle for any backup catcher. It traded for a starter as if it knew he would be needed in that role. It was a good Game 1 without Contreras, indeed.
"Lackey competed, offense did its thing and we played pretty solid defense," Schwarber said. "We picked each other up with Willson going down."