Wolverine-like Willson returns from IL earlier than expected

Catcher records RBI single, scores run less than 7 weeks after fracturing forearm

June 25th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Some 6 1/2 weeks ago, when a dejected Willson Contreras sat on a clubhouse couch with his fractured left forearm covered in a heavy wrapping, the Cardinals catcher looked directly at slugger Alec Burleson and issued a bold proclamation.

“The night it happened, I remember coming in here after the game and Willson told me, ‘I’m coming back sooner than everybody expects,’” Burleson recalled prior to Contreras’ return and the Cardinals’ 4-3 win over the Braves on Monday night at Busch Stadium. “To watch that unfold, he’s different, for sure. If that was me, I’d probably still be in a cast.”

Contreras not only returned from a fractured forearm much sooner than most ever thought he could, but he hit an RBI single and scored a run to propel the suddenly surging Cardinals to their fourth straight win. As competitive and fiery a player as there is in the St. Louis clubhouse, Contreras said he also found another source of inspiration to push for an early comeback.

“I like to be challenged, and when I heard 8-to-10 weeks [as the approximate recovery time from the medical staff], I was like, ‘Ehhh,’” said a shrugging Contreras, who cut that recovery time down to 6 1/2 weeks. “Then, when I went on social media, people thought I was out for the season, and that made me laugh because they didn’t know what they were talking about. But thanks for the comments because you guys pushed me, and I pushed myself and I’m back.”

Expected to be out until the All-Star break in mid-July after fracturing his left forearm on May 7, when he was hit by the bat of Mets slugger J.D. Martinez, Contreras was instead back behind the plate on Monday and batting third for the Cardinals, who didn’t have Paul Goldschmidt (rest) and Nolan Arenado (nerve irritation in his left forearm). The three-time All-Star had a titanium plate and screws surgically implanted to stabilize the fractured ulna bone in his arm.

Contreras working and pushing to return as quickly as possible sent a bold message to the rest of the Cardinals of his willingness to be there for the team and his desire to win.

“It’s crazy how quick he got back and it’s a testament to how hard he worked and how much he cares about being here and helping us win,” said closer Ryan Helsley, who extended his franchise record by converting his 27th consecutive save opportunity on Monday. “When he went down, I was thinking we’d probably have him back at the beginning of August. Then, we started hearing All-Star break … maybe. Now, he’s already back, and we’re still in June. That’s insane.”

Contreras, who played in six Minor League games during a rehab assignment, showed no ill effects from the injury by catching veteran starter Lance Lynn (3-3) and going 1-for-4. Contreras grounded a Statcast-projected 104.7-mph single past Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia to score Burleson during a four-run third inning. Later in the inning, Contreras scored from second base on a line-drive single by Brendan Donovan, who extended his streak of games with an RBI to seven.

Contreras said by June 6 he started pushing the club and the doctors for a return, hoping to play against his old team, the Cubs, in Chicago earlier in the month. When that idea was shot down, Contreras hoped to cut his rehab assignment in Memphis short and play this past weekend against the Giants. After that six-game rehab stint, where he caught in back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday, and survived a play at the plate where his forearm absorbed a hit, he knew he was ready to be back in the big leagues.

“I knew my arm was OK because I didn’t feel anything,” joked Contreras, whose teammates have nicknamed him “Wolverine” - inspired by the Marvel Comics character - because of the titanium plate in his arm. “I wasn’t afraid of anything bad happening because I already have a plate in there. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I wasn’t afraid at all. I just had to think that I was normal, and that’s what I did.”

Normal is hardly how Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol would describe Contreras, whom he talked to every day during the rehab and had to convince the catcher to take his time in recovering. No one should ever doubt Contreras’ willingness to battle for the Cards, Marmol said.

“He cares about winning more than anything,” Marmol marveled. “It’s a really good trait, man. How he talks and his actions are no different. He wants to be in the lineup to help us win. That’s all that matters to him. This is a guy who brings a lot of competitive edge and people feed off that.”