The Cubs headed into St. Louis for a three-game set. The last time they had done this, in June, they got swept. And they had Dan Haren on the mound, and he'd been shaky at best.
And then this marvelous shutout happened. I was in St. Louis for this one, and it was one of the best wins of the year, up to that time.
The Cubs moved back to a season-high 22 games over .500 with this win at 79-57. It reduced their deficit to the first-place Cardinals to 7½ games. They trailed the Pirates for the top wild-card spot by two games, and also led the Giants by nine games for the second wild card.
ST. LOUIS -- To quote the great Vin Scully: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!"
The only way I can figure the Cubs' 9-0 win over the Cardinals Monday afternoon is this.
Usually, when a pitcher is scheduled to start the first game of a series in the next city, he gets sent on ahead of the rest of the team so he can get some rest. So, Dan Haren probably flew to St. Louis earlier Sunday, before the afternoon game at Wrigley.
The Cardinals were playing a night game Sunday. Haren probably broke into Busch Stadium before the game, found the Cardinals' secret stash of magic pixie dust, and sprinkled it all over himself.
Either that, or he magically switched bodies with Cardinals starter Lance Lynn, because Haren was getting meek little fly balls for outs, striking out Cardinals, not walking too many hitters and getting out of minor jams with double-play balls. It was the first start of his seven with the Cubs where he didn't allow a home run, much less allow no runs; in fact, this was not only Haren's best start this year, it was the first time he'd thrown seven innings and not allowed a run since June 30, 2014 -- a span of 42 starts.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were striking against Lynn early and often. Dexter Fowler hit Lynn's sixth pitch of the game into the right-field seats for a home run, his 17th. The Cubs did get two more runners on base on a single and a walk, but Chris Coghlan TOOTBLAN'd his way into a double play on a short popup to second, ending the inning.
No matter. Fowler doubled in two more runs in the second and then the Cubs exploded for a five-run third inning highlighted by ... well, a lot of things. Anthony Rizzo doubled in a run, and after an RBI single by Miguel Montero and single by Haren (his first hit as a Cub), Addison Russell poked his 13th homer of the year into some shrubbery in front of the left-field bleachers for an 8-0 lead. That was off Seth Maness, who had relieved Lynn after Montero's single.
The Cubs managed one more run, driven in by Haren on a sacrifice fly after another Cardinals reliever, Tyler Lyons, threw a ground ball by Montero in the general direction of the tarp down the right-field line.
After that both managers started playing this one like a spring-training game, substituting and double-switching. The Cardinals wound up using 22 players, the Cubs 16, and though the complaint-department door should be nailed shut tight tonight, I did think Joe Maddon should probably have gotten some of his guys out of there earlier. Rizzo didn't come out until the eighth and Kris Bryant, who played both right field and third base on a very sticky, humid St. Louis afternoon, stayed around until Javier Baez hit for him in the ninth.
Quibbles, these are, and I shouldn't, really, not on a day when the Cubs had their biggest shutout win in St. Louis in exactly 34 years. Yes, that's right -- one of the worst teams in Cubs history shut out the Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium 10-0 on September 7, 1981, and you will definitely be amused by some of the names in that Cubs lineup.
This Cubs team is far better than that one, of course. We also got to see the first major-league appearance of Carl Edwards Jr., the first Cubs pitcher to wear a single-digit number (other than a position player pitching, David Ross, I'm looking at you) since Tony Jacobs, who wore No. 2 for one Cubs relief appearance in 1948. Edwards chose No. 6 for his uniform number and though he walked the first big-league hitter he faced, Tony Cruz, he got out of the inning with a double-play ball and another groundout, a perfectly suitable big-league debut. Zac Rosscup finished up, meaning both relievers Monday were the guys just called up, saving the rest of the pen for the rest of this series.
The Pirates lost to the Reds Monday afternoon, so the Cubs moved back to within two games of Pittsburgh for the top wild-card spot. The Cardinals have now lost two straight games and allowed 16 total runs while scoring just one, and if I might indulge a little bit of hopefulness here, the Cubs crept to within 7½ games of first place in the National League Central. Sure, winning the division is still a longshot, but:
#Cubs Haren says doesn't think they want to settle on 2nd Wild Card. "I think guys want to push for more"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 7, 2015
And sure, why not? The win moved the Cubs back to a season-high 22 games over .500 and if you were looking at this series before it began, I'd think you most likely wrote this one off. With this pitching matchup, this appeared to be the one game in the set most likely to go to the Cardinals.
Only it didn't. Now the Cubs have a real chance to win the series.
About my first visit to this incarnation of Busch Stadium, walking around to see the place is going to have to wait until tomorrow. That's because it took a tremendously long time to get in; probably 5,000 people, maybe more, were in line when the gates opened, to get one of these (click to embiggen):
The Harry bobblehead has a sound chip of him calling Stan Musial's 3,000th hit, which happened at Wrigley Field May 13, 1958, a pinch-hit double off Moe Drabowsky. It's pretty cool and the Cardinals did this today specifically to appeal to both Cardinals and Cubs fans. I do think Harry's head is not supposed to be turned like that; I'm going to have to twist it a little bit to get it back in place.
Fun times. The Cubs will go for their fifth straight win Tuesday evening, weather permitting, with Jason Hammel facing Michael Wacha.