The Cubs still had a chance to catch the Cardinals for first place in the N.L. Central coming into this series, and Starlin Castro's two homers helped them to victory in the opener of a three-game series.
The Cubs' record stood at 86-61 after this win, six games behind the Cardinals. They also moved to within one game of the second-place Pirates, and led the Giants for the second wild card by nine games. Their magic number to clinch a playoff spot dropped to seven.
Starlin Castro has been bashed enough on this site and others, so let me praise him.
Castro has been on a hitting tear ever since he was benched and became a part-time second baseman. Friday afternoon, he hit two home runs and drove in six runs to power the Cubs to an 8-3 victory over the Cardinals, a welcome opening to this series that brought the Cubs to within six games of first place and reduced their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to eight.
It was the third two-homer game of Castro's career (both the others were last year) and the first time since his major-league debut game, five years ago, that he had a six-RBI game. He might have made it even more, except Joe Maddon gave him the rest of the day off after his three-run homer in the sixth gave the Cubs an 8-3 lead. You have to get a look at Castro's face after he hit the first homer (about 0:35 into this video):
If you can read lips there... well, let's just say what he said is probably NSFW. But you might have said the same thing, right?
This game started out well. Dan Haren retired the Cardinals in order in the first inning and then the Cubs got to work on Lance Lynn, who had little control or command. He walked Kyle Schwarber and Chris Coghlan, and Anthony Rizzo singled in Schwarber to make it 1-0. Tommy La Stella (look again! The Cubs can win when he starts!) doubled in a run, and after Miguel Montero walked to load the bases, Castro singled in the third run of the inning, an inning where Lynn threw 37 pitches.
The Cardinals got a pair back in the second, thanks to an Anthony Rizzo error on a grounder by Stephen Piscotty. Kolten Wong doubled in Piscotty and after Tony Cruz made what should have been the third out of the inning, Brandon Moss' double made it 3-2, both runs unearned.
The Cubs kept getting baserunners and not getting them in through the second, third and fourth innings. They left the bases laoded in the first after scoring the three runs, left two more on in the third and then loaded them again in the fifth after Rizzo got hit (for the 28th time this year). More on that later.
The Cardinals tied it up in the fifth when Moss doubled again. Haren then hit pinch-hitter Matt Holliday in the helmet. It almost certainly wasn't intentional:
Haren hits Holliday on back of helmet with 86 mph fastball and is pulled for Rosscup. #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 18, 2015
Haren was lifted and reliever Zac Rosscup walked two hitters. The second, to Tommy Pham, scored the tying run. The Cubs managed to get out of the inning and then Castro's first homer, noted above, gave them a 5-3 lead off Seth Maness. Maness started the sixth inning and was pulled after a leadoff single by Austin Jackson. Two pitchers and two outs later, Steve Cishek walked Montero and Castro launched his second homer of the game to give them the five-run lead they'd finish the game with. I'm not sure how long that inning lasted, but it was a tremendous amount of fun as well as scoring, even with the skies lowering and rain approaching the area.
Cubs relievers threw 4⅔ innings of scoreless ball, allowing just two singles and a walk. There was even an appearance by Neil Ramirez (whose photo, oddly enough, was on today's season ticket), who threw the ninth. His velocity wasn't great but his command was decent enough. He issued one walk and gave up a single but also struck out a pair and got a ground ball to Rizzo to end it.
Now let's talk about the second time Rizzo was hit by a Cardinals pitch, this time by reliever Matt Belisle (watch it here, no embed code available at the time I wrote this recap). It was clearly a purpose pitch, thrown behind Rizzo, and he took a few steps toward the mound before thinking better of it and having plate umpire Dan Bellino intervene (that's also a good idea, having umpires accompany hitters to first base). Belisle and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny were tossed, and Maddon put the Cardinals on notice:
#Cubs Maddon on Rizzo getting hit 2nd time: "I'm really disappointed in what the Cardinals did right there "— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 18, 2015
Joe Maddon livid at the Rizzo HBP in the 7th: "We don't start stuff but we'll stop it."— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) September 18, 2015
Maddon on HBP of Rizzo: "I don’t know who put out the hit. I don’t know if Tony Soprano is in the dugout. I didn’t see him in there.— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) September 18, 2015
Maddon is absolutely right, and he went on about this topic at length in his postgame news conference, saying that Holliday being hit was completely unintentional on Haren's part. To summarize, he also "gave notice" that if the Cubs have a lead again vs. the Cardinals, they will steal bases, because building a bigger lead means not having to warm up the closer.
He then said that the rulebook of unwritten rules that the Cardinals play with was written at the turn of the last century, and that he was a fan of Branch Rickey, but doesn't want to play ball like him.
Have I mentioned how much I love Joe Maddon as Cubs manager? When have the Cubs had a manager who's not afraid to stand up to this sort of behavior and put everyone on notice that the Cubs are here to win, and play hard every day, and play right? Maybe never. Maddon is, and I don't think I'm wrong here, the best Cubs manager since Joe McCarthy, the manager William Wrigley should have never let go.
Statistically, those were the 28th and 29th HBP's for Rizzo. One more and he becomes the eighth player in major-league history to be hit 30 times in a season. Here are the other seven:
There's just one man on that list who hit 30 homers in a season, as Rizzo has -- former Cubs manager Don Baylor, who hit 31 homers in 1986, the year he was hit 35 times. The Red Sox won the A.L. pennant that year. (FWIW, the first number after the player's name is the HBP, the second is his age that year, if the headers in that table don't show up.)
It's a statistical oddity, of course, not something you necessarily aspire to, but Rizzo's OBP has been helped tremendously by this and with two hits today, it appears he's coming out of his slump.
And for Castro, he appears to have really taken to his new role. I saw him walking to the batting cage under the left-field bleachers before the game with Manny Ramirez, who's in town again. Whatever Manny told him must have really sunk in, given his big game. In 33 games since Castro was removed as the Cubs' starting shortstop, he's now hitting .356/.359/.589 (32-for-90) with six doubles, five home runs and 14 RBI in 33 games (20 starts). Seems like he's found his groove.
So have the Cubs, who have now won four in a row. If you were wondering about Saturday's starter:
Travis Wood will start Saturday for #Cubs— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 18, 2015
I'd imagine Trevor Cahill, who threw a handful of pitches in the pen Friday, would be on call to relieve Wood after three or four innings. A "bullpen day" against Michael Wacha doesn't sound like the way to go in a playoff race, but the way these Cubs have been playing... I wouldn't count anything out.
This season has been tremendous fun. Here's hoping for more. A reminder that Saturday's game starts at noon CT and will be on Fox-TV.