Another Cubs defeat? Not this time. Not on Willson Contreras’ watch.
He’s still here — confound it all — and you’ve got to hand it to the guy for his flair for the dramatic.
Contreras lined a one-out, two-run homer off Marlins reliever Dylan Florio — an ex-Cub — in the eighth inning Friday to pull out a 2-1 victory for the Cubs in the opener of a weekend series at Wrigley Field.
It was the first game at Wrigley for Contreras — not to mention teammate Ian Happ — since the Aug. 2 trade deadline passed without the three-time All-Star catcher being moved as the entire baseball world had assumed he would be.
“Oh, God, it was amazing,” he said. “To be honest, I was looking forward to doing something special right there.”
Contreras and Happ are still playing in Chicago — for now — which is perhaps somewhat encouraging, maybe even a tiny bit exciting. Or as much so as possible given the Cubs (42-63) are a last-place team with modest-at-best hitting ability, a largely undistinguished pitching rotation, practically nothing left in its bullpen and triple-digit losses potentially in its sights.
Certainly, there are Cubs fans who are pleased to still have the pair of 2022 All-Stars in the fold. Contreras and Happ themselves may even be some combination of happy and relieved about it, despite having been put through the wringer as the front office tried like heck to trade them. They’re the standouts on a team that couldn’t win without them and really can’t win with them, either, and they’re going to lose a whole lot of games together over the final two months of an early-rebuild season.
But Friday was more than just any old day because — why else? — Contreras and Happ were back where their big-league careers started. Chasing the playoffs with a contender will have to wait for Contreras, an upcoming free agent, and certainly for Happ, who is under club control through 2023.
Gone are the signs in the stands thanking them for the memories and wishing them well. We’re all done with the sad goodbye hugs, the sappy social-media posts and the gallows-style clubhouse interviews. Instead, there were nice cheers for each when the home lineup was read over the public-address system, mutual salutes between Happ and the left-field bleachers before the first inning and a decent amount of buzz whenever Contreras stepped to the plate as designated hitter.
On Wednesday, the day after the deadline, Contreras showed up to the ballpark in St. Louis so spent emotionally, all he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep. Two days later, he was reinvigorated enough to make some long-ball magic, take down the Marlins (48-58) and end the Cubs’ major-league-high five-game losing streak.
“Last time [at Wrigley], it was kind of saying goodbye and was really an emotional moment,” Contreras said. “Today, it was a really high-energy moment. I was pumped up. Having these fans day in and day out at this ballpark, playing here, and to be able to stay with the Cubs for at least two more months, I feel like I’m blessed.”
Realistically speaking, two months is hardly any time at all. Before he knows it, Contreras will be fielding questions about his future all over again. So will president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who still owes Contreras a serious conversation about where things stand.
“At any moment, we’ll talk,” Contreras said. “At any moment. We’re here. That’s the most important thing — we’re here — and I’m happy to be with the Cubs the rest of the year. Why not?”
First-year season-ticket holder Jennifer Durham, 32, has a hopeful, patient outlook in regard to the Cubs’ rebuild. How skeptical can she be if she ponied up for a full season’s slate of games despite living in Albuquerque, New Mexico? She sells a bunch of tickets and gives some away to family in the area, but Friday was her sixth trip to Wrigley this season.
“I’m a lifetime fan,” she said. “The loyalty is there, and I can’t shake it. I’m really hoping for a fantastic team by 2024, 2025 — I think we deserve it — and I’m kind of a little optimistic that Willson will stay around.”
On the main concourse before the game, Durham was with her dad, Aaron Frankel, who grew up in Wilmette but lives in Albuquerque, too. Frankel, 62, is a bit more guarded and skeptical, as evidenced by his Cubs jersey choice. He didn’t have his Kyle Schwarber jersey or his Kris Bryant jersey on. His said “Frankel” across the back.
“I got tired of buying jerseys with my favorite players that got traded away,” he said. “So I got one with my name on it after [the 2021] sell-off.”
Before arriving at Wrigley, Durham surprised Frankel by showing him a Cubs onesie with “Future Fan” and “Coming February 2023” on the front. What a sweet way to let him know she’s expecting her first child.
There’s still a lot of romance and sentimentality in Cubdom. In his return home, Contreras tapped into it in a big way. Might as well do it while he still can.