How Braves’ William Contreras has been a bright spot and made the most of his chances

MIAMI — Start with the fact that William Contreras is listed in the baseball reference at 6 feet and 180 pounds, despite not being that tall or that light. Add at least 20 pounds, subtract at least 1 inch, and you’ve got a catcher built like a full-back with a bottom half that looks like it could stop a Volkswagen.

It helps explain how he generates the ferocious counterforce he displayed in Miami on Saturday, where Contreras hit two home runs to right center in a 4-3 win that earned the Braves their first win in the road series. They lost by the same score on Sunday when Miami’s Sandy Alcantara fielded a full game and the Braves’ rally fell short by two runs in the ninth inning.

“He’s strong as an ox,” said Braves coach Sal Fasano of the 24-year-old Contreras.

“It’s all in the calves,” said Atlanta pitcher Tucker Davidson, who has been teammates with Contreras at various levels since 2016 in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. “He’s strong, that’s for sure. Those two balls (Saturday) were pretty impressive.”

Both Contreras homers met right-handed pitchers Saturday, both with full counts, with the first giving the Braves a 1-0 lead in the fifth, the other leading the seventh with the deciding run to victory.

Contreras has eight hits this season, all but two home runs. He is tied with Kansas City veteran Salvador Pérez for the major league lead in home runs by catchers. Pérez has 136 at-bats in 34 games this season; Contreras has 33 at-bats in 10 games.

The catcher with the third most home runs? None other than Cubs star Willson Contreras, William’s older brother. The younger Contreras’ fifth-inning homer tied his brother on Saturday, and the seventh-inning homer put him past his older brother. Contreras was asked if he texted or left a voicemail for his older brother after Saturday’s game to make sure Willson knew he had passed him.

“I wouldn’t do that to him,” said Contreras, who smiled at the acknowledgment of the question even before it was translated into Spanish. “I know the ball player that he is, so I’m not going to start this competition with him. But I have nothing but love, respect and admiration for my brother. He’s my favorite baseball player.”

He laughed, adding, “So I just texted him, ‘Let’s go.'”

When the Cubs played the Braves in Atlanta last month, the brothers shared a moment that brought tears to Willson’s eyes. William had been called back by Triple-A Gwinnett that day after the Braves put veteran backup catcher Manny Piña (wrist infection) on the injured list. Braves manager Brian Snitker and Cubs manager David Ross agreed that the Contreras brothers would handle the pre-game exchange of the team’s lineup cards on home plate so they could, as Snitker put it, take a picture for their mother.

After briefly posing for photographers, Williams wiped away tears.

“We’ve always been close,” Willson said afterwards, recalling her childhood in Venezuela. “We are brothers. We never argued. And we support each other. These are memories I will never forget. I always remember those moments when we grew up together at home and only dreamed of getting signed by someone. And then dream of moving up to the big leagues.

“I’m crying because I’m proud of the work we’ve taken to get where we are now.”

At the time, it seemed like William Contreras would only be up for a few weeks. But an MRI on Piña’s wrist showed ligament and cartilage damage, and Piña decided to have surgery at the end of the season. Now Contreras gets an extended opportunity to show what he’s capable of, playing behind veteran starter Travis d’Arnaud a few times a week.

“It sucks to lose Manny because I thought Manny had a lot to offer, too,” Fasano said. “But when you have a guy like William who can step in and do what he does offensively as well, that’s a nice tandem.”

“He capitalized on that opportunity so well,” Snitker said of Contreras. “His whole game, really, it was really good. Travis can’t catch every day at this point.

Braves catchers lead the majors with nine homers and 27 RBIs, including no homer Contreras hit as a designated hitter. Contreras has posted a modest .242, but his .788 slugging percentage and 1.130 OPS lead major league catchers who have at least 25 at-bats.

While Contreras has kicked out just one in seven potential base stealers, his overall defense, game calling and handling of the pitching staff have improved significantly since a year ago, when he was pushed into the starting XI after d’Arnaud and then-substitute Alex Jackson were injured in the same game in early May.

“He’s skilled,” Snitker said. “Doesn’t use much energy. He can throw. He’s calming down, he’s better at calling a game, as he will with experience.”

Contreras was asked a week ago how much better he felt at calling games and dealing with the pitching staff this season than last season. “I mean, 100 percent different. i feel really good And it’s everything – it’s the familiarity with the pitchers, knowing them really well, feeling confident, feeling relaxed, not pressuring. And just knowing that I can name a good game and name a good game,” he said, adding that he talks to his older brother “every day” and that Willson helps him with “everything.”

“Just to stay focused, keep doing your job, don’t change. Don’t let anyone get in your way, don’t let anyone stop you and keep doing what you have to do,” William said of Willson’s advice.

“I just keep to myself. I understand my role here and I’m not changing anything. I’ll just keep playing from the heart and do my best.”

Kyle Wright, another Braves pitcher who has known Contreras for years in the minor leagues, said he has enjoyed working with the catcher since spring practice this year.

“He was great,” Wright said. “Every year he got better. Especially defensively. I feel like he’s always been able to score, but even then he’s gotten a lot better. But he now names games that are spot on. I think I shrugged it off once (Saturday). Every time he pitched, it felt like the right pitch.

“He takes the ball really well. He also has a great arm. He’s always had a great arm, but he’s just very mature. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was really fun watching him grow.”

When Contreras was called up by Double A a year ago to take catching duties on May 2, Contreras was hitting .255 with four homers, 13 RBIs and .938 OPS in his first 15 games. But he had strike-plagued slumps after that, and the Braves voted him to Triple A in July. He didn’t play another major league game through late August and just seven games for the remainder of the season. He was the backup on the postseason roster, got an at-bat in Division Series and watched from the dugout as the Braves marched to the World Series title.

“I think that’s what happens with guys the more times you’re around, and he experienced the most tense part of a season with the postseason,” Fasano said. “I think now he can kind of sit back and – you know, he had a chance to absorb a lot of information last year and he’s actually able to apply a lot of that.

“For me, calling a game starts as soon as it gets easier and he’s not worried about catching the ball like everything is blooming. So (the game) looks a bit slower to him than last year.”

Considering the great power Contreras has displayed in limited at-bats this season, there has been speculation — and much hope expressed by fans on social media — that the Braves could or should get creative and find ways to defeat him to bring into the line-up more often.

Snitker was asked on Saturday about the possibility of Contreras playing outfield if he doesn’t catch, something the manager mentioned at the end of spring training. But he said the Piña injury dashed those plans.

“I mean, we have guys who can play out there (outfield),” he said. “I think we’re playing him just right, honestly. That’s pretty much how I see it. Don’t mess up anything good.”

Contreras won’t complain about the playing time. He’s just thrilled to have the opportunity and now so much better prepared to take advantage of it.

“I’m (excited), really, with all the development,” he said. “Especially if I had to narrow it down, just call the game and everything. And I’m (excited) because last year was particularly tough for me. I’m thrilled to get through this tough time and come here to name the game and catch the game.

Rally ends, Alcantara ends

Early in the ninth inning on Sunday, d’Arnaud capitalized after first baseman Jesús Aguilar dropped his foul pop-up, doubled on the next pitch and finally hit with a double from Ozzie Albies. But three batters later, Alcantara prompted a game-ending popup from Adam Duvall, whose OPS slipped from .554 to .199.

Alcantara threw 115 pitches for the full game and was charged with six hits and three runs, all unearned. He had two walks and seven strikeouts and brought his ERA down to 2.11 and his opponents’ average to .201, both the eighth-best numbers among major league qualifiers.

Braves starter Ian Anderson gave up seven hits and four runs in six innings, with two walks and six strikeouts.

The Marlins scored their fourth run in the seventh inning on Avisaíl García’s one-out sacrifice fly to right fielder Travis Demeritte, who Snitker said had forgotten how many outs there were and kept trotting toward the foul line before realizing that catcher Jacob Stallings showed up and go home.

Demeritte said afterwards that he just didn’t think he had a chance to knock out the bishop since it was moving towards the right field line and was quite deep. Demeritte also extended his hitless streak to 29 at-bats with a 0-on-3 outing that included two strikeouts for his sixth two-strikeout game in the last seven. He also has no walks at this stretch, during which his batting average has dropped from .327 to .217 and his OPS has dropped nearly 300 points from .914 to .616.

The bottom five in Sunday’s Braves batting order all hit under .240.

(Photo Eric Espada / Getty Images)

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