Cardinals, Cubs react after Willson Contreras injured on Ian Happ’s backswing

ST. LOUIS — The smack of Ian Happ’s bat against Willson Contreras’ catching mask was loud enough to silence Thursday’s sold-out crowd of Cubs and Cardinals fans at Busch Stadium. With two outs in the top of the first, Happ took a hearty cut at Miles Mikolas’ 2-0 slider. He whiffed on the pitch, but his backswing connected with the side of Contreras’ head. The former Cubs backstop fell to the dirt immediately. 

Cardinals manager Oli Marmol and head athletic trainer Adam Olsen sprinted out of the dugout. Olsen compressed a towel to Contreras’ head, which had started to bleed. Happ, who was close with Contreras during their mutual time in Chicago, lingered a few feet away. After several minutes, Contreras was able to walk off the field under his own power, stopping for a hug from Happ while on his way to the dugout.

“He was trying really hard to stay in the game and trying to fight the trainer as blood was coming out of his head,” Happ said after a 10-3 win that the Cubs controlled from the first inning. “That’s who he is. We saw that over here for a long time.”

Despite his initial objections, Contreras was removed from the game with a scalp laceration. A few minutes later, his skipper and starting pitcher would join him in the clubhouse, albeit for an entirely different reason. 

After play resumed, Mikolas’ first two pitches were inside to Happ. His first pitch — a 94 mph fastball — came up and in on Happ, but missed making contact. The second pitch, another fastball, did not. It struck Happ squarely on the backside. Home-plate umpire Ryan Additon called time and converged with the rest of the officiating crew to confer about possible intent or retaliation.

Happ left the batter’s box without much fuss: “I just wore it. You go to first base and see what happens next.” The umpiring crew, however, deemed Mikolas’ hit by pitch intentional and Mikolas was promptly ejected from the game, sparking outrage from the Cardinals dugout. Mikolas — who had never been ejected in his major-league career — was clearly taken aback, and began jawing with several Cubs who had taken to the top step of their dugout. After confronting first-base umpire Will Little, who had made his way near the Cardinals dugout at the end of the inning, Marmol was ejected from the game as well.

The ejection came as a surprise to Mikolas. He encouraged the umpires to read his scouting report, which shows how frequently he pitches inside. Still: “They believed there was intent there, and that’s all the reasoning umpires need. Everyone’s entitled to see what happens and make their own decisions and have their own opinions, and that was theirs.” 

When Mikolas’ fastball hit Happ, Additon was quick to assemble the crew. The verdict was swift, and within a couple of minutes, Mikolas was tossed.

“We are required to get together as a crew and discuss as a crew,” crew chief Lance Barksdale said to a pool reporter after the game. “And to (Additon), all four (of us), there was no doubt that it was intentional. And when it’s intentional, no matter where it hits him at, he’s ejected.”

Both Mikolas and Marmol griped about the lack of warning they believed should have been issued after Mikolas’ first pitch (though per MLB’s official rules, when an act of retaliation is deemed intentional, no warning is required before an ejection).

“They said there was intent and he meant to hit him, therefore by rule they have to eject him,” Marmol explained. “If the umpires had a problem with the first (pitch inside) then there should have been a warning there.”

“I’ve got Willson’s back. He’s my catcher. I consider him a really good friend now,” Mikolas added. “I guess (intent) was what the umpires thought I was doing. It’s unfortunate there was no warning.”

Within a matter of 20 minutes, the Cardinals had lost their manager and their starting battery. It left them scrambling to use an already-taxed bullpen to cover 25 more outs. 

The Cubs took advantage of Dakota Hudson being rushed into action out of the bullpen. Happ started a two-out rally that continued with two hits and two walks, giving All-Star Justin Steele a three-run lead before he threw his first pitch in the 99-degree heat. 

The Cubs piled on and reached the .500 mark for the first time since May 12, giving themselves a chance to be buyers at the trade deadline. Happ and Contreras became closer after the 2021 sell-off that left them among the dwindling group of well-known players on the team. Happ and Contreras flew together to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles last year and dealt with the trade rumors that never came to fruition. That history bonds Happ and Contreras.   

“It’s just horrible to watch that happen,” Happ said. “We played together for six years. We’re good friends. A lot of love for him. So to see him go down and be bleeding from the head is obviously a scary moment. We texted a little bit after the game and he’s doing all right.”

Cubs manager David Ross — who played with Contreras on the 2016 World Series team and managed him for three seasons — knows the demands and the risks that come with playing behind the plate.  

“As a former catcher, that backswing stuff is scary,” Ross said. “It happens. Obviously, Happ’s not trying to do that. Willson was fighting to stay in the game. We all know how tough Willson is. I sent him a text and hope he’s all right. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. It’s just part of the game. It stinks.”     

Contreras did not need stitches and passed concussion protocols but will be evaluated again Friday morning. He is listed as day-to-day.

“​​(Happ) is not trying to do anything, like nobody is trying to have a long swing and hit the catcher,” Contreras said. “We’re close friends, I gave him a hug. It’s part of the game and it’s over.”

(Photo of Willson Contreras and Ian Happ: Scott Kane / Associated Press)

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