Willson, Nico keeping Cubs focused amid struggles

May 9th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras pounded his chest and then gave Cubs first-base coach Mike Napoli a series of hard high-fives. The catcher had just ripped a pitch from Walker Buehler into right-center field for a run-scoring single on Sunday night.

That emphatic moment was fleeting, as the Cubs' prolonged slump persisted in the form of a 7-1 loss to the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. One night earlier, Contreras was similarly amped after a home run -- a blast that did little to stop Los Angeles' sweep of the day's doubleheader.

"I'm trying to do my best to pass my energy to everybody," Contreras said on Saturday night. "That's just me. I'm trying to support my team, to have everybody's back, because I know that it's been a really tough stretch."

The Cubs have lost 14 of 17 games since starting the season with a 6-4 showing that put the team's potential on display. There is not one specific issue to pinpoint, but rather a series of problems that have surfaced over the past three weeks.

• After turning in a .277/.357/.446 slash line in the season's first 10 games, the Cubs headed into Sunday with a .208/.289/.319 collective line in the last 16 contests. The lineup went 2-for-26 on Sunday after Contreras' first-inning hit.

• A thumb issue forced lefty Justin Steele to exit Sunday's game after four innings. Circumstances aside, it was the 18th start consisting of fewer than five innings this season for the Cubs. The bullpen (119 2/3) has worked more innings (114 1/3) than the rotation.

• Injury issues have mounted. The starting staff has been impacted by the absence of Wade Miley and Alec Mills. Marcus Stroman joined them on the injured list on Sunday. The issue-ridden starting staff now has a 5.27 ERA on the season.

• The Cubs and Dodgers were required to play three games in 48 hours, following a rainout on Friday. The star-packed Los Angeles squad outscored the Cubs, 20-3, and out-hit the North Siders, 24-15, over a three-game sweep.

"We're chasing that kind of championship-caliber baseball," Cubs manager David Ross said of the Dodgers. "We'll get there. I think there's a lot of positives in where we're going.

"But when you play teams like this, you see how fundamentally sound you have to be, how good you have to be on the bases, how good you have to pitch and continue to have good at-bats.

"Those are all the things these guys are working really hard to improve on. We're going to try to get there as fast as we possibly can."

In the wake of Saturday's doubleheader, Contreras admitted that "it's tough to even watch" the way things have been going of late for the Cubs. The catcher emphasized the importance of remaining steady in their behind-the-scenes routines, trusting that the results will follow a sound process.

Along those same lines, Cubs shortstop Nico Hoerner said he has appreciated that the work and preparation has not seemed to slip, even as the losses have mounted.

"There's never been a day here where I've felt like anyone is just going through the motions," Hoerner said. "Obviously, there have been challenging times, too, but there's nothing I'd change about the group of people here."

After Saturday's loss, Contreras and Hoerner had a conversation about Chicago's recent struggles as a team. The catcher expressed that he believes it can be easy for players to get too caught up in poor results, leading to a downward spiral.

"A lot of times we focus so much on results when they're frustrating," Contreras said, "instead of enjoying the moment, enjoying playing baseball. And then the results are going to happen. That's human. We fall into wanting the results right away. A lot of times, baseball doesn't work that way."

Hoerner said adopting that mindset can be challenging, given the variety of individual situations in a clubhouse.

There is Contreras, who is in the last year of his contract with free agency looming. There are younger players like Hoerner trying to establish themselves. There are veterans trying to extend their careers and role players working to earn more playing time.

"Everyone's got their own aspects where the results are going to impact their future in the game," Hoerner said. "But we're all on the field together, needing to win that day. … Willson, personally, he's been here for a while and it's always been with the priority of winning as the top thing, and a lot of championship aspirations in his time here.

“So I know he knows what that feels like as well as anyone. So the energy he [brings has been] awesome to see.”