CINCINNATI — The last thing the struggling Chicago Cubs need is catcher Willson Contreras sidelined by an injury.
Contreras was not in the lineup for Monday’s series-opening 7-4 victory against the Cincinnati Reds, still considered day to day while nursing a tight right hamstring. However, manager David Ross was confident Contreras won’t go on the 10-day injured list.
“We’ll give him a couple of days to rest up, but, yeah, he’s good,” Ross said. “Status quo.”
That would be the best outcome after Contreras exited Saturday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third inning after feeling something in his hamstring when he stole second base. Teams can backdate a player on the IL up to three days, making Tuesday important for Contreras’ progress if he indeed will avoid the IL.
While the Cubs want Contreras, their hottest hitter, in the lineup, there’s no reason to rush him back. Hamstring issues have bothered Contreras in the past, landing him on the IL in 2017 and 2019. This type of injury can be particularly troublesome for a catcher with the flexibility and movement needed behind the plate.
The Cubs can ease Contreras back into the lineup as the designated hitter, a spot they’ve used to manage his defensive workload. It doesn’t help either party if Contreras returns too quickly and potentially worsens the ailment.
Even with uncertainty about when Contreras will be back in the lineup, the Cubs are moving closer to a healthy roster. Infielders Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, outfielder Clint Frazier and left-hander Sean Newcomb are all eligible to come off the 10-day IL when ready. Hoerner (right ankle sprain) took batting practice Monday at Great American Ball Park and is expected to take grounders Tuesday.
“He’s progressing well every day,” Ross said. “Hopefully in a few days. We’ll see. He’s close.”
Madrigal (lower back strain) did agility work in the outfield pregame. Ross said Madrigal had a really good day Sunday and the team will continue to monitor him. Ross indicated a rehab assignment might be coming up for Madrigal.
Ross did not have an update on the return of Frazier (appendectomy), who has played five games on his rehab assignment at Triple-A Iowa. Newcomb (left ankle sprain) will begin a rehab assignment with Iowa on Tuesday.
Life on the big-league taxi squad can create unexpected free time for a player in limbo.
P.J. Higgins joined the Cubs taxi squad May 9 in San Diego and spent the next eight days with the team. That meant no game action until he rejoined Triple-A Iowa on May 17 in Des Moines, appearing in four games before the Cubs called him up Sunday.
Higgins promptly hit a three-run triple in his first at-bat.
“It feels like I’ve been constantly packing my suitcase going here and there, here and there,” Higgins told the Tribune. “But, honestly, I didn’t think too much of it. Being on the taxi squad and not getting at-bats was unfortunate, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. … I don’t know if there’s any real trick to doing it. Just kind of go with the flow.”
Higgins tried to maintain his typical hitting routine during his time on the taxi squad. He continued his cage work and hit on the field if he got the opportunity. He also caught bullpen sessions and worked with catching coach Craig Driver to maintain his catching form.
Higgins’ preparation during his eight days away from Triple A worked: He went 7-for-11 with three doubles and seven RBIs in the four games with Iowa before getting promoted.
“I just tried to prepare myself the way I did before when I wasn’t playing and just mentally get myself going,” Higgins said. “But I’ll be honest, the first couple of games, I was tired, especially catching. My legs were a little tired, so that was a bit of adjustment.”
Returning to the majors is particularly satisfying for Higgins, whose first big-league call-up ended after nine games last June because of season-ending surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his right forearm. He began a throwing program in November and was fully cleared about two weeks before spring training.
“Having that little bit of experience does help a lot to calm your nerves because you’ve been in Wrigley, you’ve been in big-league stadiums, you’ve been around the locker room, you know the travel schedule,” Higgins said. “So a little experience does a lot more than you think, even though it was a short period of time.”
Barring an IL move, Higgins might not see much playing time, but he gives the Cubs insurance for catcher Yan Gomes while Contreras is unavailable. After the work Higgins put in over the offseason to come back from surgery, the 2015 12th-round pick is grateful for every opportunity.
“It means a lot that they have the trust in me to bring me up and fill in for Willson while he’s out,” Higgins said. “It shows that they’ve paid attention throughout all these years.”
By now, left-hander Wade Miley is no stranger to returning to a ballpark he used to call home.
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The Cubs are Miley’s eighth team in 12 big-league seasons. This week’s four-game series at Great American Ball Park is his first trip to Cincinnati since the Cubs claimed him off waivers from the Reds in November.
Miley stopped by the Reds weight room before Monday’s game to say hi to former teammates and staff. He bear-hugged infielder Mike Moustakas, a teammate during both of Miley’s seasons in Cincinnati (2020-21), at the top of the visitors dugout steps during Reds batting practice.
“We got really close over there, spent so much time together,” Miley told the Tribune. “The whole COVID thing, like, we were together in the hotels — you could slip out to play some golf, that’s about it — so you’d spend a lot of time with those guys and we got really close, learned a lot about each other. It was really cool.”
Miley won’t get to face his old team this week after starting against the Diamondbacks on Sunday at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs and Reds are slated to play 15 more times after this series, giving Miley good odds of squaring off against his ex-teammates at some point this season.
And when that time comes, who will have the edge between Miley and Reds hitters?
The only matchup Miley has an eye on is if he faces a Reds catcher who caught him.
“He literally knows what I’m about to do, but it’s more fun,” Miley said. “Like, if it’s Kyle Farmer, he’s going to give you the best bat of the night because we’re so close. He doesn’t want to get the text after it. I don’t want to get the text either. So we’re going to go after each other pretty hard.”