In a season that was lost from the very beginning, but has turned better in many ways, I can't think of a victory that was more satisfying than the Cubs' 4-3, 10-inning win over the Cardinals Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.
First and foremost, it put a dent in the Cardinals' chances to clinch the N.L. Central. Combined with the Pirates' win over the Braves, St. Louis' lead in the division over Pittsburgh dropped to 1½ games with the Pirates having five games remaining and the Cardinals four. The Cubs can help out the Pirates again with a win in the Wrigley finale Wednesday night.
Welington Castillo was the hitting hero in this one, smacking a two-run homer (his 13th) for a 2-0 lead in the second inning and then a walkoff single with two out in the 10th. I'm still a little bit skeptical that Castillo is the long-term answer for the Cubs behind the plate, but he has had a good offensive season despite a relatively low batting average (.241). His overall numbers of .241/.300/.397 have produced an OPS+ of 91 and he has 1.9 bWAR, decent enough for a starting catcher. Could the Cubs upgrade? Sure, but if they wind up keeping Castillo and upgrading at other positions, they could probably live with him as the 100-or-so game starter.
Kyle Hendricks pitched well enough in this game; unfortunately, he made one mistake and it came with a runner on base. Matt Holliday, whose homer off Hendricks produced the only run in a 1-0 Cardinals win back on July 27, slammed a two-run homer to tie the game in the top of the sixth, denying Hendricks the chance to become the first pitcher in Cubs history to record eight wins in his first 13 career starts. Hendricks will get one more shot to win this year, in the final game of the season at Milwaukee.
Matt Szczur had homered in the previous inning, his second (and first at Wrigley, and yes, the Cubs went and got him the ball in exchange for some swag), and so the game went into the late innings tied. That's when the Cubs' bullpen really stepped up. Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon (in one of his patented efficient low-pitch innings, just nine of them) and Zac Rosscup combined for 4⅔ scoreless frames with just three hits and two walks allowed. One Cardinals runner, Holliday, reached third base after a double and a wild pitch in the eighth, but was stranded.
Zac Rosscup? Yes, Zac Rosscup. When Rosscup, who entered the game with a 10.22 ERA and 2.108 (!) WHIP in 17 appearances this year, came in to throw the 10th inning, I figured, "Game over, Cardinals win." That was especially so when I saw that Rosscup wasn't in the game simply to face the lefthanded-hitting Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay, but would throw the entire inning, as no one was warming up in the bullpen at all during the inning.
Rosscup vs. Holliday? This wasn't likely to end well.
And yet, it did. Rosscup struck out Holliday to end a 1-2-3 inning. Maybe there's still some hope for Rosscup to become a useful lefthanded reliever on the 2015 Cubs.
That left it to the middle of the Cubs' order to try to win the game in the last of the 10th. Another fun matchup, the Cardinals' sidearm-slinging Pat Neshek against Javier Baez, led off the inning. You knew Baez was going to try to hit every Neshek pitch to Milwaukee. And yet, he didn't, as he was called out on strikes on a 2-2 sinker. Neshek didn't even try to throw a fastball to Baez, a smart move on his part, and clearly, Baez has work to do in the offseason.
Anthony Rizzo then hit a ball that looked like it might be his third walkoff homer of the year when it left the bat, but the ball didn't quite carry in the cool fall air and wound up bouncing off the wall for a double. Jorge Soler's groundout advanced Rizzo to third and after what appeared to be quite a long mound meeting, the Cardinals decided to intentionally walk Luis Valbuena, who then took second on defensive indifference.
It surprised me that the Cardinals didn't then put Castillo on base and pitch to Chris Coghlan with a chance at a force at any base. But pitch they did, and Castillo hit Neshek's second pitch over the Cardinals outfield for a game-winning single. Among other things, it produced, for whatever it's worth, Rosscup's first big-league win.
Satisfying? Oh, yes. For all the reasons above, as well as the following:
- It was the Cubs' 70th win of the year, producing their first 70-win season since 2011. With two more wins, they can have their highest win total since 2010, and they still have a small chance of passing the Reds for fourth place.
- It evened up the Cubs' home record at 40-40 with one game remaining; a win Wednesday night would give the Cubs their first winning record at Wrigley Field since 2009.
These kinds of things are important, I believe, as the Cubs return to respectability and contention. Can you go from 95 losses to 95 wins in one year? Some teams do, it's true. More common is the trip up the standings made by recent teams like the Pirates and Royals, who have (in fits and starts) used a similar method the Cubs are trying, building with good young players. It might take a while for the Cubs to get there, but winning games on the big-league field helps build confidence in these young players and a winning attitude in the clubhouse, in my view.
One more home game and this Wrigley Field season is in the history books, and it's significant in that this will be the final Wrigley game without a video board, as the Cubs plan to start construction on the bleacher expansion and video board within days after the season ends.
But first, Jake Arrieta will have his final 2014 start against the Cardinals' John Lackey, and the Cubs will try for a series win and to put a dent in St. Louis' division-title hopes. Now that would be a fitting way to end this year at Wrigley.