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updated: 8/10/2017 5:03 PM

Loss of Conteras means it's time for Cubs to bear down

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  • Associated PressChicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Monday, July 4, 2016, in Chicago.

    Associated PressChicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Monday, July 4, 2016, in Chicago.

 
 

If the Cubs are going to win the National League Central -- let alone repeat as world champions -- they're going to have to overcome adversity.

The Cubs haven't had a whole lot of adversity to deal with since manager Joe Maddon took over before the 2015 season.

A young team in 2015 coalesced in August and went on to a 97-season on the way to the NL championship series.

Last year's team was good wire-to-wire on the way to the franchise's first World Series title since 1908.

The 2016 Cubs did lose Kyle Schwarber early with a serious knee injury, and sparkplug Dexter Fowler missed a month in the middle of the season.

But on Thursday, the Cubs were bracing for news about catcher Willson Contreras, who left Wednesday's 3-1 loss at San Francisco with what appeared to be a moderate to severe hamstring injury while running to first base.

Contreras was scheduled to undergo an MRI Thursday, and a Cubs spokesman said the team would have an update before Friday night's series opener at Arizona. So far this season, the Cubs have lost Jason Heyward, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and Addison Russell to time on the disabled list among key players. Russell currently is on the DL.

The loss of Contreras for a lengthy time could be serious for the Cubs, who entered Thursday just 1½ games ahead of both the Milwaukee Brewers and the surging St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

In many ways, Contreras has been the heart and soul of the Cubs in his first full season. He has a batting line of .274/.342/.519 with 21 home runs and 70 RBI. His OPS is .861 and his OPS-plus (with 100 being league average) is 121.

Contreras ranks third on the team behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. Bryant is at 3.4, Rizzo is at 3.3 and Contreras is at 3.0 in WAR.

Equally as impressive, Contreras is tied for second among catchers with the Marlins' J.T. Realmuto in WAR to the Giants' Buster Posey (3.9).

That makes the July 31 trade of veteran backup catcher Alex Avila from Detroit even more important.

With Contreras likely headed to the DL -- perhaps for several weeks -- Avila is expected to get the bulk of the playing time with Victor Caratini coming back up from Class AAA Iowa. The good news for the Cubs is that Caratini has hit well since being optioned back to Iowa Aug. 1 after just over a month in the big leagues.

Caratini went 2-for-3 with 2 doubles Wednesday for the I-Cubs. Entering Thursday, he was 10-for-27 with 4 doubles, 2 homers and 5 RBI and had hit safely in 6 of 7 games since being demoted.

"I feel good," Caratini told the Des Moines Register through a translator. "I felt like my timing was off because I didn't play much. I came down here, just worked at it and I'm back at it again, swinging it and feeling good."

Avila, 30, has a combined line of .268/.387/.474 between the Tigers and Cubs, with 12 homers and 34 RBI. His 1 hit so far with the Cubs was a home run.

The Cubs are going to have to step up their game overall having lost six of their last eight. They looked listless and inattentive at times in losing two of three to the Giants, the last-place team in the NL West.

Team defense has not been bad, but it has been nowhere near the level of 2016, when the Cubs were first in both defensive WAR and in defensive runs saved. As of Thursday, they were eighth in the majors (fourth in the NL) in defensive WAR and fourth overall (third in the NL) in defensive runs saved.

"We have not played with the same kind of efficiency that we had been playing with coming out of the break," manager Joe Maddon told reporters in San Francisco. "We have to push ourselves mentally, more than anything, to get over the hump."

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