ON THE ROAD TO ST. LOUIS — Willson Contreras smashed a three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning Sunday evening, tying the game, but it wasn’t enough. The Cardinals then loaded the bases with a double and two walks (one intentional, more on that in a moment) in the bottom of the inning and Randal Grichuk sent a Mike Montgomery offering deep into left field for a game-winning single, giving St. Louis a 4-3 win on Opening Night.
Contreras’ homer was hit after Ben Zobrist was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame. One out later, Jason Heyward hit a ball that didn’t quite go hard enough for any of the Cardinals fielders to make a clean play on it, and Heyward did a head-first slide into first base, with Matt Carpenter just missing the play. That put two runners on for Contreras. This is how the Cubs won last year, and despite the loss, that’s a good sign for comeback wins as the year goes on.
Here’s Willson’s homer:
And here’s some data on Willson’s homer:
Wow!!! Willson Contreras with a clutch HR pic.twitter.com/a8zFVYiaj7— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 3, 2017
And some trivia about Willson’s homer:
1st Cubs player since Shawon Dunston in 1990 to hit a game-tying HR in the 9th inning or later with his team trailing by 3+ runs on the road https://t.co/LRLaVcuLMt— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 3, 2017
(That was hit in this game. The Cubs lost that one, too, 5-4.)
Regarding the ninth-inning intentional walk to Yadier Molina:
And there was the first intentional walk without throwing a pitch in baseball history.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) April 3, 2017
Hey that IBB just saved us 30 sec out of a 3.5 hour nine inning game. Love it!— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) April 3, 2017
Got to agree with Jesse Rogers. The “automatic” IBB really accomplishes nothing.
Now, on to the rest of this disappointing loss.
I don’t want to make too much out of the MLB At Bat app sign behind home plate that apparently prevented Javier Baez from seeing Dexter Fowler’s single leading off the third inning.
But the baseball Fowler bounced through on the right side apparently got lost in the white-background sign and eventually, the managers and umpires conferred and got the sign changed to one with a blue background. They had a similar issue at Wrigley Field a couple of years ago when they first put a ribbon board in right field. Catchers in the visitors bullpen said they had trouble seeing pitches from relievers warming up when the sign was white or light-colored.
That’s not the reason the Cubs lost this game. Rather, they lost in part because they failed to capitalize on opportunities with runners on base early on. The Cubs were just 0-for-4 with RISP, but two of those at-bats were in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo at the plate. This is the situation that the Cubs should thrive on, their two key middle-of-the-order hitters up with runners on.
Bryant popped up and Rizzo flied to right. Give Cardinals closer Seung Hwan Oh some credit. He’s pretty good. So is Carlos Martinez, although the Cubs hit him pretty well last year. In this start he was outstanding, striking out 10 and walking no Cubs over seven innings. Walks are one of the things the Cubs did best in 2016, setting a franchise record (656). That inning could have been a big one for the Cubs, instead they wound up not scoring at all until Willson’s homer.
Jon Lester threw well enough, but got into long counts early with Cardinals hitters fouling off lots of offerings, so he was lifted after five innings and 102 pitches. It wasn’t a bad outing... but wasn’t really that good either.
The Cardinals had other chances to score, particularly when they got runners on second and third in the seventh with Carl Edwards Jr. on the mound. CJ threw one wild pitch and then nearly wild-pitched a run in, but the ball bounced back quickly to Willson Contreras and the runners held.
I wasn’t real happy to see the play where Fowler stuck his leg out attempting to break up a double play. We’ve seen this before from Cardinals players. Addison Russell apparently wasn’t on second base when he took Javy’s relay throw, but the call on the field was “out” and it stood on review. I like Dex and I don’t think he meant anything malicious with this. But I don’t think runners should be doing this. At all.
The Cardinals appeared to put the game away in the eighth inning when Grichuk hit a two-run homer off Pedro Strop, making it 3-0, but Contreras’ blast gave the Cubs hope, for a short time, at least.
The Cubs appeared to not get helped by plate umpire Paul Emmel’s strike zone when Rizzo was called out on strikes in the seventh (ESPN’s strike-zone box showed it outside), but the @CubsUmp Twitter account did not mention that call. The automated account did note nine missed calls Sunday night, seven of which actually helped the Cubs.
After all the speculation about whether Jon Jay or Albert Almora Jr. would start in center field for the opener, neither did, with Joe Maddon opting for Heyward in center and Zobrist in right, with Baez at second base. This is just another of Joe’s ways of getting everyone in the lineup and enough rest for all, I think.
In the end, this one reminded me of Opening Day 2008, at Wrigley Field against the Brewers. The Cubs trailed 3-0 entering the ninth; Kosuke Fukudome hit a three-run homer to tie the game on a cold, drizzly day. The Cubs lost that game 4-3 in 10 innings, but the 2008 season wound up with 97 wins. And the 2015 team lost their first game to the Cardinals, starting 0-1 like this year. That team also won 97 games. We’d take that, I think, as a start.
Jake Arrieta -- who threw seven shutout innings in the second game of 2015 against St. Louis — will face Adam Wainwright Tuesday evening as the season begins its slow march toward October. This team never gives up. Stay tuned for a summer of fun.