Suzuki powers Cubs with 4th HR, uncanny patience

Contreras-Gomes catching combo proves to be effective for Chicago's pitchers

April 18th, 2022

DENVER -- Seiya Suzuki began to smirk and lowered his head, collecting himself as he spoke with reporters on Sunday. Standing behind the media was Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, grinning and holding up a phone like he was part of the pack.

Needless to say, the mood was light in the visitors' clubhouse after Chicago picked up a 6-4 victory, escaping Coors Field with a split of the four-game set. Lefty Drew Smyly was sharp, the offense kept rolling and the North Siders continued to look like the competitive club they hope to be this season.

"We hope to continue this," Suzuki said via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita.

Here are three takeaways from the Cubs' latest victory:

Power, patience and respect for Suzuki
Suzuki's power has been impressive. His strike-zone discipline has been uncanny. Now, the rookie slugger is beginning to earn the respect of opposing pitchers.

In the fifth inning, Rockies starter Austin Gomber opted to intentionally walk Suzuki with first base open, one out and the Cubs holding a 4-0 lead. That put the moment in the hands of Yan Gomes, who was tasked with facing reliever Ashton Goudeau, and delivered an RBI single.

"He's a really good player with a really good eye," Cubs manager David Ross said of Suzuki. "They're going to try to make somebody else beat you, yeah. That's smart managing."

Suzuki reached base three times (two walks and a home run) as part of Chicago’s 13-hit attack. Yes, he’s only had 35 plate appearances, but his transition to the Majors from Japan has been seamless out of the gates. Suzuki now has four homers, plus a .400/.543/.960 slash line, an identical strikeout and walk rate (25.7 percent) and a 284 wRC+.

"What's stood out is just how calm the at-bats are," Ross said. "You hear about the plate discipline and the contact, but just being able to find his pitches, and not chase outside the strike zone with the velocity that's here and some of the nasty stuff that he's faced so far, it's just been really impressive.”

Catcher comfort with Contreras, Gomes
Ross noted during the spring that he would have games with both of his catchers in the starting lineup this season. The first example arrived Sunday, when Contreras served as the designated hitter and Gomes got the nod behind the dish.

"They've got a good way about them," Ross said of the catchers. "They care a lot about the pitching staff and how to get the most out of them, and they both can really hit. It's nice to have that core tandem."

Through nine games, Contreras and Gomes each have caught starts by Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Smyly. Contreras has been teamed with Kyle Hendricks twice, and he handled Mark Leiter Jr.'s start on Saturday night.

Contreras got the Cubs rolling with a solo homer in the first inning, while Gomes had his run-scoring hit and guided Smyly through 4 2/3 scoreless frames.

"It's huge. They're both tremendous catchers," said Smyly, who has allowed no runs in two starts (9 2/3 innings) this season. "Yan's been around forever. Contreras is an All-Star every year. Working with both of them is extremely fun."

The ninth-inning rotation
There are two schools of thought for the ninth inning: Name a closer and have other arms for specific innings, or use the best pitchers in the most opportunistic situations based on matchups and other factors.

"It's funny," Cubs veteran David Robertson said. "I've been in 'pens where it was nice to know [who had the ninth], but there was a Hall of Famer at the back end."

The Cubs had that type of situation in recent years with Craig Kimbrel. Right now, Chicago does not have that clear-cut closer, so Ross is relying on a rotation of sorts as the group finds its rhythm and roles.

"We're still kind of formulating that," Ross said of the blueprint for the back end.

Robertson picked up the save on Sunday, giving him three on the season. Rowan Wick took the eighth and Mychal Givens pitched out of a jam in the seventh. All three of those arms are options for setup or closing duties.

"It's very early in the season," Robertson said. "The manager is getting used to using us, and we're getting used to him. But the good thing is, we kind of have an open dialogue. We know that at any point, somebody else could be throwing the seventh inning and possibly throwing the ninth inning. So it's not a big deal to any of us in this bullpen.”