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Cubs' Contreras goes yard in Fall League win

Club's No. 10 prospect goes 2-for-4 with a homer in Mesa victory

MESA, Ariz. -- After a breakthrough season in Double-A, Willson Contreras is continuing to impress in the Arizona Fall League.

The Cubs' No. 10 prospect powered Mesa to a 5-3 win over Surprise on Thursday at Sloan Park, going 2-for-4 with a two-run home run, his third of the Fall League. Contreras, who has hit safely in seven of 10 games for the Solar Sox, is batting .308 with a 1.032 OPS and seven RBIs.

"I feel really good at the plate right now," Contreras said. "I come to field early and get my work in, and then during games I focus in and see what the pitcher has and go from there."

"It's good to be here because we face a lot of good pitching and get to play with the best prospects in the game," he added.

Signed out of Venezuela by the Cubs in 2009, Contreras finished this year at the Double-A level with a .333 average to claim the Southern League batting title. The feat was particularly impressive considering he batted just .242 with a .649 OPS last season in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.

"The difference was I went to Venezuela during the offseason and played winter ball down there," Contreras said of his year-to-year improvement. "I got to share a lot of time with big league guys there like Wilson Ramos and Yangervis Solarte, and so I asked a lot of questions and they gave me a lot of tips."

In addition to his career-best batting average, the 23-year-old catcher established new highs in slugging (.478), hits (151), doubles (34), RBIs (75) and on-base percentage (.413), with the latter three representing the second-best marks in the Southern League. He also hit eight home runs, scored 71 runs and posted a vastly improved 62/57 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

"This was the first year that I played almost every day, and I think that made a big difference," he said. "I was able to get a lot of at-bats and it helped me be consistent at the plate."

After beginning his pro career as a third baseman, Contreras made the transition to catcher in 2012 and has since appeared in at least 72 games at the position in each of the last three seasons. In 2015, he threw out 28 percent (27 of 97) of attempted basestealers in 75 games behind the plate, a majority of which came after Kyle Schwarber was promoted to the Major Leagues in mid-June. Overall, Contreras played in a career-high 126 games for the Smokies.

"I think a lot of it is mental," said Contreras when asked about his durability after a long and surely grueling season behind the plate. "I would go the weight room every day and prepare myself for every game, no matter if I'm tired or not. Baseball is baseball, and I have to play every day."

Meanwhile, Contreras has continued to make strides defensively in this year's Fall League while working closely with Mesa's coaching staff as well as a slew of talented pitchers.

"I'm working on my game-calling this fall, and it's getting better," he said. "I've been talking a lot with [pitching coach Steve Connelly], who's helped me a lot, and I'm also working on my receiving."

Mesa jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning courtesy of back-to-back home runs with two outs by Contreras and Rays No. 10 prospect Casey Gillaspie, who finished 2-for-3 with a double and a walk to go along with his second AFL homer.

The Solar Sox added to their lead with two more runs in the top of the eighth inning as Angels prospects Eric Aguilera and Chad Hinshaw plated runs with a single and a walk, respectively.

Royals No. 5 prospect Bubba Starling continued to swing a hot bat for Surprise in the loss, going 1-for-3 with his third Fall League home run. The 23-year-old outfielder is batting .333 with six RBIs through 10 games for the Saguaros. Cardinals No. 12 prospect Patrick Wisdom hit his first home run -- a two-run shot in the top of the eighth inning -- giving him five extra-base hits and eight RBIs on the season.

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.
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