ST. LOUIS -- Feel better now?
The Cubs took advantage of some sketchy Cardinals defense in the second inning and posted five runs with just two baseballs leaving the infield on their way to a 6-3 win in Game 2 of their Division Series, evening up the series at one win each.
It was a gorgeous fall afternoon in St. Louis, with sunshine giving way to shadows and temperatures in the high 60s when Jorge Soler took away any Cardinals fans' thoughts of taking a no-hitter into the middle innings as John Lackey had done Friday evening. Soler laced a double down the left-field line with one out in the first inning, but there he stood while Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo struck out.
In the bottom of the inning, Matt Carpenter launched Kyle Hendricks' fourth pitch onto the grass-covered hitters' background in center field. 1-0 Cardinals, and the Cubs fan could be forgiven for thinking: "Uh-oh."
But Hendricks gave up nothing more in that inning, thanks in part to some fine defense by Starlin Castro, who retrieved a ball hit by Jason Heyward that bounced off Rizzo's glove and threw Heyward out, to Hendricks covering first base. That's when the Cubs' offense got to work, or shall we say, that's when the Cardinals decided to help Cubs hitters out.
Castro bounced a single into center to lead off the second inning. Austin Jackson hit what could have been a double-play ball to Jhonny Peralta, but Kolten Wong's relay sailed into the Cardinals' dugout and Jackson was awarded second base. Miguel Montero worked a walk. It's a very small sample size -- just five plate appearances -- but Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia has never retired Montero, who has two hits and three walks off him. While this was going on, Jackson stole third.
With Hendricks due up, that proved to be important. A safety squeeze might have been called for, or at least a bunt advancing Montero. Hendricks did lay down a good bunt, but Garcia... well, I saw it in person and have watched the video several times and I still can't figure out what Garcia was thinking. He turned one way, then the other, frozen in indecision on where to throw as Jackson started scooting home, and then threw the ball into right field. Jackson scored the tying run, Montero scampered all the way to third and Hendricks wound up on second. Here's the play:
Addison Russell then pushed a perfect bunt to the second-base side of the mound. Montero scored easily to make it 2-1. That was the first out of the inning; had the Cardinals played good defense, the inning would have been over.
Next it was Dexter Fowler's turn to drive in a run with an infield bouncer, this one going high over Garcia's head. By the time Peralta picked it up, he had nowhere to go with it. Hendricks scored to make it 3-1.
Then this happened:
Garcia hung a breaking pitch and Soler just crushed it. Did you hear the Cubs fans in the crowd? After not having much to cheer about Friday night, we were loud throughout that five-run inning, but especially after Soler's blast. The two errors made all five runs unearned, but so what? Runs are runs, and Hendricks returned to the mound with a four-run lead. The Cubs added a run in the third with more small ball. Rizzo walked, was singled to third by Castro and scored on an infield out. That run was off Lance Lynn, which is... I have no idea what Mike Matheny was thinking with that relief move. Lynn was (and still is, according to this) scheduled to start Game 4 at Wrigley Tuesday. So why have him throw 24 pitches on Saturday? I have no idea. That prompted this tweet:
Game 4 (if nec): Bullpen Game Vs Bullpen Game— Fan Of 99-Win Team (@TheBlogfines) October 10, 2015
Jason Hammel will start Game 4 for the Cubs. I hope he can go farther then Hendricks did. Also, this regarding Garcia leaving the game:
Garcia pulled after stomach virus, Cardinals announce.— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) October 10, 2015
Not sure I believe that; a stomach virus made him make that bad defensive play and allow the homer to Soler? Not buying that.
Hendricks sailed along into the fifth. After Carpenter's home run he retired 14 of the next 15 Cardinals he faced, helped by some good defense, in particular this slick play by Russell:
Nice scoop on that play by Rizzo, too.
Nothing's ever easy in baseball, though. One out from finishing the fifth with that four-run lead, Hendricks allowed back-to-back solo homers to Wong and pinch-hitter Randal Grichuk. Joe Maddon figured he'd seen enough, even after Hendricks had recorded seven strikeouts among the 14 outs he did record. Hendricks' stuff isn't good enough to overpower hitters, though, and he has such a small margin for error -- thus, the three home runs he gave up. At least they were all solo shots.
Travis Wood came into the game and it's not too much to say that even including Soler, his performance might have been the game's most important. He threw 2⅓ scoreless innings, allowing just a two-out single to Yadier Molina in the seventh. This allowed Maddon to get to his late-inning relievers with the three-run lead intact. Wood was also helped by good defense, in particular a nice running catch on a sinking liner hit by Wong, caught by Fowler to end the seventh inning.
I need to interrupt the game timeline here to say that Matt Carpenter has to be one of the most annoying players in the major leagues. In the fifth, he started taking off toward first base on a 3-1 pitch that was clearly strike two. Threw his bat down and everything. Umpires don't like that much, and Bill Welke's ball-and-strike calls were, in general, both good and consistent all evening. Carpenter did some barking at Welke after being called out on strikes in the eighth. In my view, both Carpenter and, really, the entire Cardinals team have a sense of entitlement that needs to be wiped right off their smug faces.
Anyway, the Cubs had another chance to score in the seventh when Fowler popped a double down the left-field line and Soler drew his second walk of the game. But the next three Cubs made outs, ending the inning. One of the outs, a sharp line drive by Rizzo caught by Carpenter, resulted in a video review. Fowler had advanced to third on a forceout by Bryant, and Carpenter raced to the base to try to double off Fowler:
Once again, I saw Cardinals fans around me signal "out" when the play was on the stadium video board. I'd like to think I can look at a play honestly when I see a reviewed call. There was one angle -- not the best one -- where it appeared Fowler might have been out, but another angle clearly showed his hand back on the base just before Carpenter's foot touched it, and the play was ruled "call confirmed," meaning the review crew in New York had clear and convincing evidence the call on the field was correct. In the end it didn't matter, as Castro grounded out to end the inning.
That left it up to the Cubs bullpen, and thank heavens Pedro Strop didn't enter this game. Maybe it's Busch Stadium -- seven of the nine runs Strop allowed to the Cardinals during the 2015 regular season were there -- but after Friday's Strop debacle, Maddon called on Trevor Cahill to be his eighth-inning setup man. Cahill had a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, one of them the aforementioned called K on Carpenter.
Some of the Cardinals fans left the park after that; I saw long lines walking up the aisles after Cahill struck out Stephen Piscotty to end the inning. "Best fans in baseball" leaving a playoff game their team is trailing by three runs with an inning to go? Cubs fans wouldn't do that. (Right?)
So it was up to Hector Rondon to save it. Heyward singled up the middle with one out, but Rondon got the next two hitters to hit baseballs right at Bryant, who forced Heyward with the first one and then threw out pinch-hitter Mark Reynolds at first base to end the game and tie the series. It was the first win for the Cubs in a division-series game on the road since October 5, 2003, Game 5 against the Braves, which won that Division Series. For me personally, it was the first time in four road Division Series games attended that I had ever seen the Cubs win one (the other three: two in Arizona in 2007, and Friday night's loss).
The fans at Busch Stadium were friendly Saturday, even with their team's defeat. One older gentleman, a Cardinals season-ticket holder sitting a couple of rows in front of me, was particularly gracious and said if the Cardinals didn't win, he'd be rooting for the Cubs to go all the way. Stadium employees were also efficient, professional and helpful. I had a great time at these two games... and hope I won't be back again this year.
The Cubs have won two of their three postseason games so far this fall with no help at all from their two big bats, Rizzo and Bryant. Rizzo is 0-for-10 with a walk and one run scored; Bryant is 0-for-11 with four strikeouts. And yet, I feel confident about this team because pretty much everyone else has contributed. That's the way the Cubs won games all year, with a total team effort. Soler has to be the Game 2 hero with his double, homer and two walks, and seems likely to play Game 3, even against righthander Michael Wacha, as he's 2-for-5 lifetime vs. Wacha, and one of those hits is a home run. Bryant hits far better at Wrigley than on the road, so I look for him to get going starting Monday.
I'm sure you feel confident about Game 3, as do I, with Jake Arrieta scheduled to pitch against Wacha in what will be an absolutely rocking Wrigley Field Monday afternoon. A reminder that the game time for Monday won't be known until late Sunday evening. If the Blue Jays defeat the Rangers (7 p.m. CT tonight) and force a Game 4 in that series, the Cubs and Cardinals will play at 5:07 p.m. CT. If the Jays/Rangers series ends Sunday with a Texas sweep, the Cubs and Cardinals will play at 3:37 p.m. CT.
Site note: again, as we did for the wild-card game, reaction from various sources won't be complete until later today. Thus Cub Tracks, normally here Sunday mornings, will run in a special edition Monday morning, after MLB Bullets.