ST. LOUIS -- I was all set to write a glorious recap of another Cubs shutout of the Cardinals, because the first six innings of Tuesday night's game followed, for the most part, the script from Monday's.
Please remember, though, that these are the Cubs and nothing's ever easy. A scary five-run Cardinals seventh inning made this game close, but the Cubs hung on and won the game 8-5, in so doing winning the series and setting up the possibility of a sweep. (Gulp. Did I really write that? Well, it's the truth.)
This one started out well, much as Monday's game did. Starlin Castro walked with one out in the first and after a second out, Anthony Rizzo staked the Cubs to a 2-0 lead with his 29th home run of the season. The Cubs seemingly put the game out of reach in the second, and while you might not believe me, I actually called Castro's three-run homer off Michael Wacha. The Cubs had already extended the lead to 3-0 on a Javier Baez double and an RBI single by Jason Hammel. Austin Jackson put runners on first and second with a single and Castro slammed a home run into about the third row of the bleachers just to the left of the hitters' background at Busch Stadium. That silenced the hometown crowd, or whatever portion of the announced 42,206 actually showed up on a rainy evening.
The Cubs also get credit for this: that was the worst start of Wacha's career, the only time in 54 starts where he's thrown only four innings and given up six runs.
The rain never fell too hard, but it did rain steadily for the first four innings on a typical sticky St. Louis evening. The 6-0 lead seemed quite sufficient for the first six innings, as Hammel was mowing down Cardinals hitters. He was helped by some slick infield defense, particularly by Baez and Addison Russell, and two double plays. Through six, Hammel had allowed three hits and two walks and had thrown just 86 pitches.
Through much of this year, Joe Maddon has been quite proactive about taking his starting pitchers out early, sometimes (in my view) too early. He'd done this with Hammel, in fact, several times since the beginning of August: 76 pitches on August 6 against the Giants, 65 against the Brewers August 12, 62 against the Tigers August 18... well, you get the idea.
The Cubs had extended the lead to 8-0 on RBI doubles by Castro and Rizzo and so I guess Maddon figured, "What could go wrong if I let Hammel throw one more inning?" This despite the addition of two more relievers Tuesday, making the active Cubs relief-pitcher count 13. That's not 13 pitchers, that's literally 13 relievers, 18 total pitchers on the staff. Hammel issued a leadoff walk to Yadier Molina and then Randal Grichuk, in his first at-bat since coming off the DL, launched a ball that I think is still going. All right, not really, but it landed in the third deck in left field. ESPN's Home Run Tracker has it at 400 feet, but it seemed longer. All right, it's still a six-run lead. Another walk brought the usually-reliable Justin Grimm into the game, but he wasn't. He struck out Greg Garcia, hit a batter, gave up a single and Clayton Richard was brought in face lefty hitter Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hit a looping line drive that Baez made a nice grab on -- two out, the score still 8-2.
Then it was Pedro Strop's turn to make us nervous. With the bases loaded, Stephen Piscotty singled up the middle to make it 8-4. Strop walked Jason Heyward to load the bases again, and the next hitter was Tony Cruz, who had come in to pinch-run for Molina at the start of this inning, which at the time had seemingly happened hours earlier.
Cruz came into the game hitting .180 and was 2-for-13 in his last eight games. He rarely plays, and when he does it's usually mopping up for Molina, as he was Tuesday night. Before Tuesday night, though, Cruz had faced Strop twice and had a hit off him. The small sample size came through again, as Cruz laced a single to left to make it 8-5.
Yikes. The Cubs weren't going to blow an 8-0 lead, were they? By this time it had started raining again, and maybe 10,000 of the announced 42,206 were still in Busch Stadium, a place I still haven't had time to explore, choosing to stay in my seat due to the weather. Perhaps today.
Fortunately, the Cubs did not blow that lead. Fernando Rodney, who's looking like an excellent late-season pickup, retired the Cardinals in order in the eighth and Hector Rondon (27th save) gave up a one-out double to Carpenter in the ninth before striking out Piscotty and getting Heyward to hit a soft little grounder to Rizzo to end it.
I have to give a lot of credit to Castro for his performance since he was replaced as the starting shortstop and made into a part-time second baseman. In that time he's now 23-for-65 (.354) with five doubles and two home runs. Castro could have sulked after being removed from a position that was his for more than five seasons; instead, he's become an excellent bench player. Much credit to him for accepting this role and doing what it takes to win.
Which is what everyone on this team is doing, thanks, I believe in large part due to the leadership of Joe Maddon.
The win was the Cubs' 80th of the season, their first year at 80 or more wins since 2009. They kept pace with the Pirates, who also won Tuesday, and remain two games behind Pittsburgh for the first wild card spot. The Cubs now trail St. Louis by 6½ games in the N.L. Central. On a personal note, the Cubs have now won the last six games I have seen them play in St. Louis (two in 1984, two in 1992, and these two) and all-time, I am now 12-7 here. Maybe I should make this trip more often.
And with Jon Lester on the mound to face Carlos Martinez in the day-game finale to this series, the Cubs actually have a legitimate chance to sweep it, which would also give them six straight wins. The last Cubs sweep of the Cardinals in St. Louis was in September 2010, when they were having that Mike Quade dead-cat bounce. A sweep of this set would be far more significant. The game preview will post at 11 a.m. CT.