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Cardinals 3, Cubs 2: So Close...

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The Cubs dropped a tough one to the Cardinals Monday night.

Jon Durr/Getty Images

Joe Maddon has always preached aggressive play, especially to his young players.

That's why we can't be too upset with Albert Almora Jr. for this attempt to take third base [VIDEO] with one out in the ninth inning. Trevor Rosenthal's pitch bounced in front of the plate, but then hit umpire Pat Hoberg's foot and didn't get away from Yadier Molina, who threw Almora out at third.

It's a shame, because Ben Zobrist's single into right field would almost certainly have scored Almora with the tying run. The hit moved Chris Coghlan (who had been hit by a pitch) to third with two out, but Jason Heyward popped to second baseman Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals defeated the Cubs 3-2.

There were some good things that happened in this loss, though.

This was one of John Lackey's "gut it out" starts. He had command issues in the early innings, walking three, and home runs by Brandon Moss and Jhonny Peralta helped the Cardinals to a 3-0 lead before the third inning was over.

The Cubs got two of those runs back in the bottom of the third, on a Zobrist single, a double by Kris Bryant and an RBI single from Willson Contreras.

But after that, the game almost didn't feel that close until the Cubs' ninth-inning rally fell just short. Lackey settled down and retired nine of the last 11 hitters he faced. Early on, it didn't appear he'd get out of the fifth inning, but he completed six, helping save the bullpen. And it figures, doesn't it? Monday, the pen did a good job keeping the game close, not allowing a run in three innings, as opposed to Sunday, when Cubs relievers let the Pirates get back into the game.

That did, however, require some excellent defensive work. After Carpenter drew a one-out walk in the ninth off Justin Grimm. Contreras made this strong and accurate throw [VIDEO] to nail him trying to swipe second base.

Another Grimm-issued walk put Aledmys Diaz on base. Matt Adams had been announced as a pinch-hitter, so Joe Maddon summoned Clayton Richard for the platoon advantage. Mike Matheny countered with Jedd Gyorko. I suppose Maddon figured that, and decided he'd rather have the matchup of Richard/Gyorko than Grimm/Adams.

Richard has been hit hard all year and Gyorko ripped a Richard offering off the left-center field wall. But Bryant got a good bounce off the wall and fired a strike to Addison Russell, whose relay throw was perfect to Contreras, who tagged Diaz out:

It's easy to see why everyone's so excited about Contreras. He seems at home at the plate (1-for-4 Monday night, though he did hit into a rally-killing double play in the eighth) and his defense is first-rate. And according to this Tribune article, we're going to see quite a bit of him:

Manager Joe Maddon envisions Willson Contreras — who made his first major-league start Monday — catching at least two of the Cubs' five starting pitchers and possibly a third while Miguel Montero handles Jake Arrieta and David Ross catches Jon Lester.

Maddon said Contreras, who homered in his first major-league at-bat Sunday, could pinch-hit or enter late in games he's not starting.

There was a bit of extracurricular activity in this one. Lackey hit Moss with two out and a runner on first in the fifth. That was clearly unintentional, as why would the Cubs want to give the Cardinals an extra baserunner, already down a run? Russell made a nice snag of a line drive hit by Kolten Wong to end that inning.

With two out in the bottom of that inning, Jaime Garcia hit Bryant on a 1-2 pitch, clearly retaliatory. Warnings were issued. Why does Matheny play this game? Last September, when the Cardinals engaged in similar shenanigans at Wrigley, Maddon said, "I didn't start this, but I will end it." We'll see if that means anything in the rest of this series.

So the Cubs lost a tough one. They have been resilient all year after defeats like this, and I don't expect that to change as this series continues.

Cubs walk watch: Two walks in Monday's game bring the season total to 293, or 4.31 per game. Pace: 698.

This series doesn't get any easier, with the Cardinals starting Adam Wainwright in tonight's contest. Jason Hammel will go for the Cubs.