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After HBP, heated Contreras hits back in big way

Fifth-inning frustration gives way to joy after 420-foot homer in seventh
@cdenicola13
April 16, 2019

MIAMI -- Willson Contreras’ early-season success at the plate may be credited to a mechanical fix, but the Cubs won’t reveal his secret. After Contreras got heated during the fifth inning, he took out his frustration with a mammoth homer in the seventh in the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the

MIAMI -- Willson Contreras’ early-season success at the plate may be credited to a mechanical fix, but the Cubs won’t reveal his secret.

After Contreras got heated during the fifth inning, he took out his frustration with a mammoth homer in the seventh in the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Marlins on Monday night at Marlins Park.

It began when Contreras appeared to exchange words with Miami catcher Chad Wallach as he headed to first base after being hit by an 89.6 mph fastball on a 1-2 pitch from Marlins starter Trevor Richards, loading the bases in the two-run fifth inning.

“I didn’t say anything to nobody. I said it to myself,” Contreras said afterward. “I don’t want to get my wrist broken or my hand broken. I got a little emotional, yes, and I should. I know that the pitcher doesn’t want to hit me in that situation. That’s why I didn’t say anything to him. That was to myself.”

Added Cubs manager Joe Maddon, “That was Willson being Willson.”

In his next plate appearance in the seventh, Contreras clubbed his sixth home run of the year, which paces National League catchers, to extend Chicago’s lead to 6-2. He entered Monday with the fourth-best slugging percentage in the NL, fifth-best in the Majors. Following his 2-for-3 performance, Contreras has an .829 slugging percentage and a 1.300 OPS.

According to Statcast, Contreras’ solo tater to deep left-center field traveled a projected 420 feet, with a 29-degree launch angle and a 105 mph exit velocity. He crushed it off of an 82.4 mph curveball from right-hander Drew Steckenrider.

Per Maddon, Contreras is doing “just one thing” mechanically that he wasn’t during a 2018 campaign in which he finished with a .249/.339/.390 slash line and only 10 homers. During Spring Training, Maddon checked old footage and noticed a difference between last season and this year’s Cactus League slate.

When asked if it might be loading earlier for a swing, Contreras replied, “Probably. I think it's more mentally.”

Contreras also worked a bases-loaded walk on a close pitch during a three-run first inning and added an RBI single in the ninth to up his average to .341.

“There's only one thing Willson's got to do. He's got to keep his strike zone organized,” Maddon said. “If he does that, he's going to continue to hit like that all year. That's it. If he doesn’t give in to the other pitcher and swing at pitcher’s pitches, he will hit well like that all year.”

It was redemption of sorts for Contreras, who struck out on three pitches with the tying run at third base during the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss to the Angels.

“That's going to happen my whole career,” Contreras said. “I’m going to strike out way more times with bases loaded or nobody on base. That hasn’t gotten into my mind. I turn the page. I know we lost the game, but I can’t live in the past.”

Darvish challenges himself

Yu Darvish didn't record a quality start, but there were promising signs in Monday's win.

Darvish reached 98.7 mph on the radar gun on his final pitch, which hit Miami center fielder Lewis Brinson, and struck out eight -- his highest total since May 2, 2018 -- as part of a challenge to himself.

“I'm trying to throw hard as I could,” said Darvish, who allowed two runs on four hits and four walks over 5 2/3 innings. “Not for strike zone, just as hard as I could. That made my velocity go up. I should do that for next time. Seriously, I'm thinking too much to throw strikes. So I should do that for next time.”

The 32-year-old right-hander also brought back his two-seamer for the first time in 2019 upon the urging of his coaching staff. It’s a pitch that opens the outer edge to righties, and one that he used 19 percent of the time in ‘18, according to Statcast. The pitch got him six called strikes in this outing.

“In Spring Training I never threw [it], even [in] bullpen,” said Darvish, who used it 21 percent of the time on Monday. “But today I threw it in the game and still felt good. So that's why I threw more. For two-seam, I'm always comfortable more than four-seam. That's why I started using it.”

Christina De Nicola is a reporter and game producer for MLB.com based in Miami. Follow her on Twitter @CDeNicola13.