Cubs-Crew tensions rise over HBPs

April 14th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- It’s been three years since Cole Hamels doused cold water on the idea that Brewers-Cubs qualified as a rivalry, but it’s sure starting to heat up now.

Cubs catcher was plunked by a Brewers pitcher for the third time in five games this season. He wasn’t happy. Brewers ace had to dance out of the way when Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera’s 95 mph fastball zipped behind Woodruff’s legs. He wasn’t happy, either.

That led to warnings for both benches before Contreras had the last word at American Family Field, smashing a long, go-ahead home run in the eighth inning and then dramatically flinging his bat and shushing the crowd while he circled the bases on the way to a 3-2 Cubs win.

"It feels good to shut them up," Contreras said. "When they boo me, I don't really care. But, don't get sensitive when I do something like that. ... Tonight, we sent a message. I think they picked the wrong guy to throw at. That was a message sent."

Here’s the source of the recent tensions from the Cubs’ point of view: In the past two seasons, no player in baseball has been hit by pitches more often by a single opponent than Contreras has been hit by the Brewers. It’s seven times and counting, including a scary moment last week at Wrigley Field when a 93 mph fastball from 2020 National League Rookie of the Year Devin Williams struck Contreras in the helmet.

Rather remarkably, Contreras stood and took his base with barely a word. But two days later, when Contreras was hit again by Brewers newcomer Brad Boxberger, there were words exchanged, the benches cleared, and Contreras later drew a fine from MLB.

On Tuesday, Contreras checked a swing in the fourth inning and was struck on the hand by a pitch from Woodruff. The Brewers argued with home-plate umpire Mike Estabrook that Contreras actually did swing, but were denied.

“That's number seven in the last 13 or 14 games,” Contreras said. “And I know that a lot of those hit-by-pitches are not intentional. I've been talking a lot to [Omar] Narváez, their catcher. We are really good friends. We're really close. And I told him, ‘I know you guys are not trying to hit me, but bro, that's something that frustrates any player. And I'm trying to take care of myself.’

“I was trying to send a message last series at home. And then I got fined."

The Brewers say they must pitch Contreras inside, even though he crowds the plate and has been known to lean in on occasion. The numbers back that up, showing Contreras’ weakest damage up and in, and his hot zones on the outer part of the plate.

“We’re trying to go inside there and we’re kind of missing spots a little bit,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He is on the plate, so there’s a little less room for error there, is what I’d say. But we’re going to continue to pitch inside. We have to be able to do that.”

Said Woodruff: “There was no intent. No purpose.”

An inning later, Tepera and the Cubs pitched inside, too. Very, very inside.

With Woodruff, a right-handed pitcher but left-handed batter, at the plate in the fifth, Tepera’s first pitch was a 94 mph fastball behind Woodruff’s legs. Woodruff immediately turned to Tepera and strongly voiced his displeasure.

“That caught me off guard. I didn't know anything about it,” Contreras said.

The Brewers seemed to believe differently.

“A pitch like that concerns me, yeah,” Counsell said.

And Woodruff?

"I mean I think everybody can kind of read the situation of the game and kind of form your own opinion,” Woodruff said. “It's over and done with. We’ve got a long season. We’ve got to play these guys a bunch more times. I'll just let you form your own opinion about it.”

Credit all of the players involved for keeping their cool. Several Cubs briefly began to converge on the mound in support of Tepera before backing off. Brewers players on the bench and out in the bullpen came to attention, but no one charged the field.

"I'm extremely happy,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I think some of that's been going back and forth, whether it's on purpose or accident. It's so hard in today's game with how hard guys throw and where that's at. I didn't see how far it was behind him or in front of him -- I couldn't tell from my angle. But, I'm glad the umpires jumped on top of it and benches didn't clear. That's the main thing in those scenarios, and the situation that we're in with the pandemic."

Before play resumed, Woodruff and Contreras briefly talked, and Contreras patted Woodruff on the backside. It was back to baseball.

How did Woodruff keep his cool?

"Credit to my parents,” he said, smiling. “I was raised right. I guess I was a little hot at first. But reacting is not going to solve anything, you know? Just go back out and pitch, get them out and let that do the talking. I've never been thrown at before. So, crazy.”