ST. LOUIS -- You know, if three days ago someone had told us that the Cubs would win two of three in this series even while losing the game Jon Lester started, we'd probably have all been quite happy with that result.
Of course, once you've won the first two and are six outs away from a sweep... that's a very different story. And it's a bit worrisome that the Cubs bullpen, which has been very good most of this season, was the reason for the 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, a defeat that ended a five-game winning streak and most probably, put an end to any thoughts of the Cubs somehow overcoming the Cardinals and winning the National League Central. They're now 7½ games behind with 24 remaining (23 for St. Louis). Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes.
Let's make one thing clear right now: Taking Jon Lester out after seven strong innings was the right thing to do. Even though he had retired 20 of 21 hitters since two first-inning hits gave the Cardinals a run, Lester was tiring, it was hot and still sticky, he'd thrown 105 pitches and the Cubs needed some offense. Now, I can quibble with Joe Maddon's curious choice to not use Kris Bryant as the pinch-hitter for Lester after sending Bryant out on deck as David Ross was batting in the top of the eighth. But once Ross struck out, Maddon sent Jonathan Herrera to bat instead, apparently intending to use Bryant only with a runner on.
Me? I'd have let Bryant bat anyway. Maybe he'd have done something off Jonathan Broxton; Herrera seemed overmatched.
But the Cubs' bullpen, if it's to do anything down the stretch and in the postseason, is going to have to save games like this with a two-run lead and six outs to go.
The key to the Cardinals' three-run eighth was a walk to Mark Reynolds after Pedro Strop had retired Brandon Moss on a routine fly to center. Reynolds used to draw a lot of walks, but no longer does, and still strikes out a lot. You've just got to throw strikes to him. Strop didn't, and then Greg Garcia singled, putting the tying run on base. Clayton Richard was summoned to face Matt Carpenter. Carpenter singled, making it 3-2.
Maddon then went to Fernando Rodney, who had actually been quite good up to now in five Cubs appearances (five innings, two hits, one walk, one run, seven strikeouts). Not in this one, unfortunately. Stephen Piscotty hit Rodney's first pitch over Dexter Fowler's head for a two-run double.
Many people, myself included, have remarked on how shallow Fowler (and other Cubs outfielders) play. Maybe he should have played deeper for that one.
The Cubs had no chance against Trevor Rosenthal (43rd save) in the ninth. I was hoping one of the first three hitters could get on to bring Anthony Rizzo to the plate; Rizzo might have been able to catch up to one of Rosenthal's fastballs. Alas, he ended the game on deck when Austin Jackson grounded out.
All of this happened after the Cubs scored in the first inning for the third straight game. Rizzo doubled in Chris Coghlan and then took third after he appeared to get hung up in a rundown -- but no Cardinal covered third base. He'd have scored on Tommy La Stella's ground-rule double anyway. The Cubs added a run in the third on three straight singles by Lester (!), Addison Russell and Fowler, and got all three Cardinals starting pitchers in this series out of the game by the end of the fifth inning. That's a good thing. Bad: leaving nine men on base and going 2-for-11 with RISP.
Lester cruised through seven innings. Again, I think Maddon did the right thing lifting ; he just didn't push the right bullpen buttons. This is something that's going to have to be fixed, and soon.
The Cubs did play some good defense; Javier Baez made a nice stop on a ground ball, and I'm sure you'd like to have another look (or first look, if you haven't seen it) at Coghlan's dive into the right-field stands to catch a foul fly by pinch-hitter Tommy Pham to end the fifth inning:
The win clinched the season series for the Cardinals over the Cubs, leading 10-6 with three games remaining. But even with this loss, the Cubs showed they can play right with a team that's blown apart the National League this year. They will, however, have to play better to win games in October, particularly in the relief-pitching area.
Regarding my trip to Busch Stadium, I did have a chance to look around some more Wednesday afternoon. My one major impression of the main concourse on the lower level is that it's kind of dark, even with daylight coming in. Food choices seem pretty pedestrian and, as I noted the other day, overpriced, though I did find a good value in a chicken quesadilla hidden away at the back of the concourse with no one in line. They make those fresh for $8. Tuesday night I sat in the center-field scoreboard patio, which has an all-inclusive buffet with BBQ chicken and brisket and drinks included, another good value. Cardinals employees were friendly and efficient, but I left with the impression of a ballpark that's somewhat generic, the only thing making it stand out is the view of the Gateway Arch, which you can only see from the infield seats (this is the view from my Wednesday afternoon location):
The Pirates will face the Reds in Cincinnati Wednesday evening. Going in, they lead the Cubs by 2½ games for the top wild-card spot. The Cubs lead the Giants by 8½ games and the Nationals by nine for the second wild-card spot and the Cubs' magic number to clinch at least that spot is 16. The Cubs are still 22 games over .500 and now head to Philadelphia, where they really should win three of four, I'd think. (Yes, I realize that didn't work out so well when the Phillies were at Wrigley. Still.) Jake Arrieta throws the series opener against Adam Morgan (who?), and two of the other Phillies probable starters (Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff) are guys you've probably never heard of (I hadn't).
I wrote this recap from a Starbucks off Exit 11 on I-55 in Edwardsville, Illinois, on the way back to Chicago, having attended 26 of the Cubs' last 32 games (the only ones I haven't been to since August 6: the six played in California at the end of August). Heading north to Chicago just after I hit "publish," as the Cubs fly to Philly. Here's to more winning resuming Thursday.