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Cardinals 4, Cubs 3: Baserunning Questions

The Cubs again came up one run, and one win, short of sweeping the Cardinals.

John Konstantaras/Getty Images

The Cubs fell to the Cardinals 4-3 at Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon, ending their five-game winning streak and likely ending any slim chance they'd have had to catch the Cardinals for the N.L. Central title.

The questions I alluded to in the headline to this recap are:

  • Should Anthony Rizzo have tried to score on that short-to-medium fly ball to right field by Addison Russell in the eighth inning?
  • Should Quintin Berry have tried to steal second base with nobody out in the ninth inning?

Here are my answers. Yours might differ, and I'm sure we'll have lots of discussion on these.

In the Rizzo case, there's one out in the inning and the Cubs have already scored a run on three straight walks after a leadoff single. The ball is hit to Jason Heyward, who has an outstanding arm. Rizzo's a good baserunner, but his speed is only average. My first inclination was to say that Rizzo should have been sent, but after thinking about it again, and looking at this video, I have to say it was a mistake:

Heyward's momentum was going forward, he was in perfect position to throw, and he made a perfect throw. Obviously all those things have to happen to get an out in that situation, and the Cardinals did so, and hindsight is always 20/20, but I think sending Rizzo was a mistake in that situation. Stay on third base and the bases are still loaded with one out, with quite a number of ways to score the tying run.

When Starlin Castro singled to start the ninth inning, the right thing to do was pinch-run Berry for him. That's why Berry is on this roster, for situations exactly like that one. But if you're going to take off, I think you have to do it on the first pitch. By waiting until after pinch-hitter Jorge Soler nearly launched one of Trevor Rosenthal's 100 mile-per-hour fastballs out of the ballpark -- it went foul by maybe 30 or 40 feet -- I believe that increased the risk of exactly what happened, Berry being thrown out. That was the first time Berry had been caught stealing in his big-league career. He had been 25-for-25 in the regular season, five-for-five in the postseason.

After that it was Cubs hitters against Rosenthal's fastball; Soler couldn't come around on any more pitches and struck out, and Kyle Schwarber managed to hit a Rosenthal fastball, but grounded out to short to end the game.

Jon Lester started this game quite poorly. Tommy Pham, who had four homers in 122 at-bats coming into this game, pounced on a Lester pitch and sent it completely over the new left-field bleacher structure onto Waveland Avenue, probably the longest home run I've seen clear the entire bleachers so far this year. A single and two more batters later, Stephen Piscotty made the score 3-0 Cardinals and Lester had already thrown 20 pitches to the first five batters of the game.

He did settle down and gave up just three more hits until being lifted for a pinch-hitter after six innings. Unfortunately, one of those hits was a pop-fly double by Matt Carpenter in the third. Two outs later, Jhonny Peralta singled him in. At the time it was 4-0 Cardinals. But you know what? This Cubs team has been so resilient the last couple of months, I did have confidence that they could get back into the game. Lester picked Peralta off to end the inning, and the Cubs got to work in the bottom of the inning with a one-out single... by Lester! He loves hitting against the Cardinals:

Love that tweet. (Lester's later groundout reduced that average to .273. All three of his career hits are against the Cardinals.)

Two walks loaded the bases in that inning and Rizzo singled in a pair of runs. Kris Bryant, batting with two runners on base, struck out to end the inning. After that, Carlos Martinez retired 12 of the next 13 Cubs he faced until Starlin Castro was hit by a pitch in the seventh, that had to be ruled a HBP on review. Dexter Fowler singled Castro to third with two out, but Schwarber grounded out to end that rally.

The Cubs bullpen did a good job Sunday. Tommy Hunter, Neil Ramirez and Hector Rondon threw three innings and allowed only one baserunner, on an error by Tommy La Stella at third base, and they combined for four strikeouts. It was particularly good to see Hunter, who had pitched only once since September 4, throw a strong inning, and Ramirez also looked very good.

I had one quibble with what Joe Maddon did, or more correctly, did not do in the ninth inning. I'd have thought he'd have wanted his best defensive alignment for that inning, and would have moved Kris Bryant back to third base and put Austin Jackson in center field. Bryant has so little experience in center field and in late September, late in the day, that's a very tough sun field to play. When La Stella made that error, I was afraid it might lead to more Cardinals runs. Since it didn't, I guess it worked, but that was a risk.

So the Cubs lost, but it was completely clear to me, over these last two series against the Cardinals in which the Cubs won four of six, that the Cubs can absolutely win a playoff series against them, and it now appears that's where the Cubs would be headed if they win the wild-card game against the Pirates. Joe Maddon agrees:

With the Cubs now six games behind the Cardinals with 13 to play, winning the division seems nearly impossible. It would have been a longshot even with a win Sunday afternoon. With the Giants and Nationals winning Sunday afternoon, the Cubs' magic number to clinch a playoff spot remained at five.

In case you were wondering why it took so long to post this, I was waiting for the end of the Pirates/Dodgers game, just completed with a 4-3 Pirates win. So, the Pirates now lead the Cubs by two games for the top wild-card spot with 13 left for both teams -- three of them against each other next weekend at Wrigley. The Cubs still have an excellent chance at hosting the wild-card game, since they only have to tie, not pass, the Bucs.

I wish I could adequately convey to you in words what the atmosphere at Wrigley Field has been like the last three days. I haven't felt this way about a regular-season series since the five-game set against the Cardinals in 2003 -- and this one had somewhat higher stakes since it's later in the year. Especially Sunday, almost no one left the ballpark until the very end, and people were standing and screaming and yelling with every pitch.

It's awesome. It felt like a playoff series. And hopefully, we'll get the Cardinals back at Wrigley for one of those in just a couple of weeks.

The Cubs will resume their quest Monday evening at Wrigley Field when they host the Brewers, who had lost eight in a row and 10 of 11 before they beat the Reds Sunday afternoon. That doesn't mean the Cubs should take them lightly -- and I know Joe Maddon will properly prepare his club for these three games. Jason Hammel goes for the Cubs Monday; Wily Peralta for the Brewers.

Hang on, everyone. This has been one amazing ride so far this September, and I think it's just going to get better.