By Bruce Levine —
CHICAGO (CBS) — With catcher Willson Contreras coming off the disabled list Sunday, the Cubs’ sporadic offense got a real jolt of positive energy.
The Cubs have scored plenty of runs since the All-Star break, but a large amount of them have come in big blowouts. At other times, the offense has struggled for stretches longer than the team cares for.
The need for regulars coming off the DL could be a huge help.
“I am a 100 percent and ready to play,” Contreras said after being out 31 days with a right hamstring pull.
Positive vibes may be right around the corner with shortstop Addison Russell on the fast track back as well from his foot injury. Javier Baez has done a masterful job of filling in for Russell, but the entire structure of the lock-down infield defense changes greatly with Baez at second base and Russell at shortstop.
The same can be said for the catching position. Alex Avila and Rene Rivera have been done quality work since Contreras was injured on Aug. 9. With Contreras back, the dynamic for manager Joe Maddon and the staff changes again. Another slugging threat would be welcome in a lineup that depends greatly on the extra-base hit.
Maddon and the coaches will try to ease Contreras back into the lineup.
“It is hard to ask him not to go 100 percent,” Maddon said. “The trainers feel very strongly Willson is well-healed.”
“The best thing we can do is limit innings for him at the beginning. This would be almost like him being on a rehab assignment. That is the only recourse we have other than to ask him not to go hard. That is difficult to do. I would probably ask him not to ‘Respect 90′ (run full out), don’t be jumping at bag, don’t try to do too much. Just try to temper it a little bit. Just play the game behind the plate like you would. Swing the bat like you would.”
Out since early August, Russell had his best workouts in quite a while over the weekend. The plan could have him eased back into the lineup after another 10 days or so.
“It is going pretty smooth,” Russell said Saturday. “Third day running, and each day my foot is feeling better. The workload is packing on, but the foot’s feeling a lot better, and that’s looking pretty positive.”
Bringing both players back without risking further injury will have to be the Cubs’ top priority. The notion that the team needs the best version of these two talented players is real. Run production has too often been iffy in recent weeks, forcing Maddon to start offensive specialist position players such as John Jay and Tommy La Stella.
At the same time, Maddon was crossing his fingers that the lack of range and defensive prowess for the overall team doesn’t cause losses in close games. In July, Maddon predicted that it would be a three- or four-team race to the wire in the NL Central, and he’s been right.
“We have never been able to just roll,” Maddon said, referring to the Cubs’ inability to gather a foothold on the division. “In fact, we have been rather streaky. There is nothing that indicated to me we are going to get away from that. I didn’t see it, I didn’t feel it. We would have a good four, five, six games. All of a sudden it goes away for a couple of days.”
With 20 games left in the season entering play Sunday, the Cubs hold a slim and precarious three-game lead over the Brewers and the Cardinals.
The Cubs have been in first place or tied for the lead since July 26. Their biggest lead was as recent as Sept. 7. The Cubs’ 12 remaining games against the Brewers and Cardinals will likely decide the winner of the NL Central race.
“We have to win our games,” Contreras said. “I am 100 percent, and I will give my guys my energy. They are going to feel it. From now on, we have to focus every single game. We will see what happens.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.