The lede to this recap of the Cubs' 5-4 win over the Cardinals on a gorgeous late-summer Saturday afternoon changed about five times in the last 20 minutes of the contest, so let me start here.
If anyone reading this -- Cubs fan, Cardinals fan, fan of intensely played regular-season pennant-race games -- thinks Hector Rondon hit Greg Garcia intentionally in the ninth inning, you are sadly mistaken. Why would the Cubs' closer want to do that with the Cubs seemingly cruising to an easy 5-1 win, and warnings already having been issued to both dugouts after two previous Cubs pitches hit Kolten Wong?
He wouldn't, especially after getting ahead of Garcia on a 1-2 count. And if you don't believe me, ask Joe Maddon:
On the #Cubs hitting 3 STL players, Maddon says: "None of that was intentional, it just happens, it's part of the game."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 19, 2015
And that's confirmed by these quotes from Rondon:
#Cubs Rondon: "The umpire came to me and said to me, 'I know it's not on purpose but you have to go out and take it.'"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 19, 2015
#Cubs Rondon knew about the warning. Said: "In that situation, you want to finish the game"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 19, 2015
Look, I'm sure Mike Matheny is going to practice the same kind of gamesmanship in his postgame remarks that Maddon did Friday. That's OK. I understand that kind of public statement. It's a manager showing his team he has their back. Every manager should do that. I also don't think either of the times Wong was hit was intentional, either. Maddon does note:
Maddon realizes STL fans may not accept that. "I know nobody wants to believe me -- you're not going to believe me, all the Cardinal nation"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 19, 2015
I understand that. It's the nature of being a fan of your team. You think that bad stuff like this is intentional, even if it really isn't. I get it. What I don't want to see is this rivalry, which has generally been characterized by mutual respect, devolve into the kind of bad blood you see between, for example, the Cardinals and Reds. I hope this sort of thing ends.
The rest of the ninth inning proved one thing: if the Cubs need a lefty specialist in the postseason, it's not Zac Rosscup. His stuff is pretty ordinary and he doesn't even seem to trust it. Matt Carpenter homered on a 1-2 fastball after Rosscup got some sliders over the plate to make it 5-3. When Rosscup gave up two more singles to put the tying run on base, Dave Martinez, running the team after Joe Maddon was ejected along with Rondon, called on Pedro Strop to save it.
Strop had been horrific against the Cardinals so far this year -- nine earned runs in 6⅓ innings for a 12.79 ERA, with six walks and two homers allowed. But this is the kind of situation you might face in a postseason game, and this was a good test not only of Strop, but the entire team.
Strop got Jhonny Peralta -- who had hit a game-winning homer off him at Wrigley in July -- on three straight sliders for a called strikeout. That was the key play of the inning, I thought, stopping the Cardinals after three straight hits. Yadier Molina hit a fly ball to medium right field that scored Pham to make it 5-4. Then this happened:
Wow, man, talk about producing under pressure, Addison Russell did it. As Len Kasper said on the broadcast, that might be one of the best defensive plays ever to end a game. If that goes through, the tying run goes to third base and the lead run is on. Instead, the Cubs hung on for a win that had a playoff feel to it, and everyone in the ballpark was into it. Virtually no one left Wrigley Field before the ninth, hoping to celebrate an easy win, and instead were "treated" to a tense ninth inning that ended with the tying run on base.
Whew! Hang on for this kind of ride through the rest of September and October.
The Cubs started out this one just as they'd started the game in St. Louis against Michael Wacha, hitting him early and hard. A walk, double by Kris Bryant and single by Starlin Castro (who was 2-for-4 yet again, keeping his hot streak going) scored two runs. The Cubs plated two more in the fifth on home runs hit on consecutive at-bats by Jorge Soler (welcome back to the starting lineup!) and Bryant. Bryant's homer, his 25th, tied the Cubs' team record for home runs by a rookie, set in 1961 by future Hall of Famer Billy Williams. I love Billy, but here's hoping Bryant breaks that record soon. I'll bet Billy's rooting for that himself.
The Cubs added what originally looked like an insurance run in the sixth, when Chris Denorfia blooped a single off Wong's glove, was advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by David Ross, and scored don a single by pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, who is proving to be quite a useful bench player.
This was a true team victory, with contributions from just about everyone. Travis Wood threw well for almost three innings, until he was lifted after a two-out walk in the third. He allowed one run on two hits. Trevor Cahill, who has been terrific this month, threw 3⅓ scoreless innings. Between the two on this "bullpen day," six innings, four hits, one run, six strikeouts. I wouldn't necessarily want to go through a whole season with this sort of "piggyback" pitching, but it seems to be working for the Cubs right now.
Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm and Fernando Rodney threw effective relief, setting up what should have been an easy ninth. It wasn't, but the result is what's important.
I will say that Anthony Rizzo looks like he could use a day off. He made another error on a routine play in this one, and even though he had two hits, I hope that perhaps Maddon can rest him one day during the Brewers series, perhaps Wednesday, which would give him two straight days off with next Thursday's off day.
The result means a number of things:
- The Cubs move to a season-high 26 games over .500 and reduce their magic number to clinch a postseason berth to six, and...
- The Cubs move to within five games of the first-place Cardinals, and...
- If the Dodgers beat the Pirates again tonight (8:10 p.m. CT start), the Cubs and Pirates will be tied for the N.L.'s two wild-card spots.
- Finally, this win, the Cubs' fifth straight, marks the fifth separate winning streak of at least five games since July 29. Since that date the Cubs are 34-14, second only to the Blue Jays for the best record in baseball.
So the Cubs and Bucs could be tied with 14 games remaining, and as you know, if the teams wind up tied, the wild-card game would be at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs aren't necessarily just aiming for that:
#Cubs Bryant: We want to win the division ... and we're ready to fight for it. We don't want to just settle for a Wild Card. We want it all— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 19, 2015
A longshot? Sure. But why not dream it? I had hardly wanted to dream this before Friday's game, but the Cubs now have a real chance to sweep this series, with Jon Lester going Sunday against Carlos Martinez. It's a rematch of September 9 in St. Louis, where Lester outpitched Martinez but the Cubs' bullpen couldn't hang on for the win. Here's hoping for a different result tomorrow.
Are you enjoying this? Because if you're not, you don't love baseball. This is what we've all dreamed of for several years. I love it.
I'll end this with one more quote from Joe Maddon, who seems to say exactly the right thing for every situation:
Go for it, Pedro. You've earned it.