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Cardinals 8, Cubs 7: Late homer rally falls one run short

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They’ll try it again tonight.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — I went to Busch Stadium Tuesday evening hoping to see the Cubs clinch the N.L. Central championship.

Instead, what I got was three hours and 46 minutes of excruciatingly exciting baseball that resulted in an 8-7 Cubs loss to the Cardinals. That, coupled with a one-run Brewers win over the Reds, postponed any Cubs division title celebration until at least Wednesday.

This game had just about everything, and I know Joe Maddon is a World Series-winning manager and all, but once again I have some quibbles with some of his curious decisions during this defeat.

First of those decisions was the one to start Mike Freeman at shortstop. I mean... I’m sure Mike Freeman is a really good person who is kind to his mom and likes animals, but really and truly, he is not a major-league baseball player.

Honestly, I’d rather have seen Ben Zobrist start at shortstop, Ian Happ at second base and Albert Almora Jr. in center field. That would have provided better defense than Freeman did in the first inning, when he booted the routiniest of routine ground balls. The Cardinals, who were leading 1-0 at the time on Matt Carpenter’s second career hit (and second carer home run) off his former college teammate Jake Arrieta, scored a second run on the error (Dexter Fowler, who had tripled, scored) and when Randal Grichuk also tripled, it was 3-0 Cardinals and Jake had thrown 35 pitches and we’re not even in the second inning yet.

In the top of the second, Happ tripled. Now we’re at three triples and a home run combined between the two teams and they haven’t even finished the second inning yet.

Kyle Schwarber, in a nice piece of hitting, hit a ground ball to the left side that scored Happ and made it 3-1.

Unfortunately, Jake got tagged for two more runs in the bottom of the inning. With two out, Carpenter walked and then Tommy Pham launched a baseball into the third deck to make it 5-1. Yikes.

But these Cubs, as is stated right on their 2016 World Series rings, never quit. In the third, Freeman doubled. Yes, indeed, that actually happened. Freeman also singled later, making this his second multi-hit game of the year, and he’s still hitting only .122 (6-for-49) this season. Yikes again.

Anyway, Arrieta then hit a comebacker. Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez tried to catch Freeman off second base; that failed, and Paul DeJong threw Arrieta out at first. The Cardinals challenged, but it was ruled “call stands.” Kris Bryant was hit by a pitch and Anthony Rizzo walked and then Willson Contreras drew ball four on a very close pitch and it was 5-2.

There was more curious baseball play in the fourth. Schwarber singled and Jason Heyward walked. That brought up Freeman again [VIDEO].

Give Freeman credit for the dive into first base; the play really wasn’t close at all and was quickly overturned by the review crew.

That loaded the bases and ended Jake’s night at 67 pitches, as Tommy La Stella was sent up to bat for him.

TLS appeared to hit into a 1-2-3 double play; I had just started writing it on my scorecard when I saw TLS trotting to first base. That seemed odd until I realized catcher’s interference had been ruled; the Cubs scored a run and it was 5-3, still with nobody out. But Zobrist struck out, as did Bryant, and Rizzo grounded out harmlessly to end the inning.

Really, this is just about a full game’s worth of baseball already and we haven’t even completed the fourth inning!

Mike Montgomery replaced Jake and threw a scoreless fourth, but was touched up for a run in the fifth, making it 6-3 Cardinals. During that fifth inning, Albert Almora Jr., who had batted for Schwarber in the top of the inning, went back for a ball that eventually landed for a double by DeJong. He crashed awkwardly into the center-field wall, almost at the same spot where he stole a home run from Matt Adams back in April.

Almora was on the ground for what seemed like a very long time. He got up slowly and walked off the field under his own power, and:

Fortunately, this turned out to not be a serious injury:

This likely means Almora will be out for a few days, but should be all right once the (presumed) division-series matchup with the Nationals begins.

And this is where I thought Joe made another odd and curious decision. I fully expected Pedro Strop to be the Cubs’ pitcher in the sixth inning. But no, it was Felix Pena heading in from the bullpen.

Really? Pena? Joe recently described games in this stretch as no different from postseason games, and a guy who’s not going to be on the postseason roster is in the ballgame?

Pena did throw a scoreless sixth. He hit Pham with two out, then picked him off. So that’s good. What wasn’t good was sending him out for a second inning of relief, because Jedd Gyorko and Cubs nemesis Grichuk sent solo homers into the St. Louis night to make it 8-3. Grichuk against the Cubs this year: .375/.419/.925 (15-for-40, 1.344 OPS), two doubles, a triple, six home runs. Joe, you might want to think about just walking Grichuk in situations like this.

Just about this time, the Brewers were completing their win over the surprisingly tough Reds, who had the tying run in scoring position with two out in the ninth, but couldn’t bring him home. So it was going to be up to the Cubs to put together a stirring comeback to clinch the division.

And they nearly did it. Happ was hit by a pitch and Leonys Martin, who entered to replace Almora, walked on yet another really close pitch. That brought Heyward to the plate, and he jumped right on John Brebbia’s first pitch:

That video includes the home run Zobrist hit two outs later. The two homers brought the Cubs to within one run and brought the Cubs fans remaining in the crowd (some had left after it became 8-3) to their feet, loudly.

Bryant then nearly tied the game:

The ball bounced on the warning track just short of the wall and into the seats for a ground-rule double, but Bryant was stranded.

Curious decision number three: Justin Wilson was the reliever for the bottom of the eighth.

I mean, sure, Wilson had one decent outing against the Brewers over this past weekend, but that came after six bad ones previously this month (16.20 ERA, 4.200 [!] WHIP, seven walks in 3⅓ innings), and sure enough, Wilson resumed his previous Cubs performance of not throwing strikes. Seven pitches, one strike and one walk later, Joe brought in Carl Edwards Jr.

I mean... if you’re going to put CJ in the game, just put him in the game! Again, I return to this thought: Wilson has talent, he threw very well for the Tigers earlier this year, but something is seriously wrong and I don’t think the Cubs are going to fix it before the postseason. Write this off and fix it in spring training.

CJ completed a walk charged to Wilson; he had entered at a disadvantage with a 2-0 count. But he struck out Carpenter and got Stephen Piscotty to hit a fly ball to Martin. Fowler was hit by a pitch, but then CJ got Gyorko to hit a popup toward shortstop. Yes, Freeman caught it. (You’ll forgive me if I would rather not see Mike Freeman in a Cubs uniform after this Sunday.)

So the Cubs had a shot at it, down one going to the last of the ninth, with new Cardinals closer Juan Nicasio on the mound.

Contreras led off with a walk, a really good at-bat in which he fouled off three straight pitches. But Happ struck out, and Addison Russell, batting for Martin, also struck out.

That left it up to Heyward, the former Cardinal. While Heyward was batting, Contreras stole second, putting the tying run in scoring position. And Heyward battled well, working a walk from an 0-2 count.

Now the lead run is on base and no, Freeman isn’t going to be the one batting. Instead, Javier Baez, not starting due to a sore knee from the ball he fouled off it Monday, pinch-hit for Freeman.

Well, you know Javy’s a two-true-outcome player (I know the phrase is “three true outcomes,” but Javy doesn’t really do much of the third one, walking) — you know this at-bat is likely going to end on either a strikeout or a three-run homer, even though a single would have sufficed.

Javy watched two strikes cross the plate, Nicasio’s third pitch bounced in the dirt, and then Baez swung and missed at a 97 mile per hour fastball, and the game was over.

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago, that wasn’t what I drove to St. Louis to see, and I won’t see it Wednesday either — not because these resilient Cubs won’t clinch Wednesday, but because I have to be back in Chicago, so I’ll miss seeing the division clinching. It was nice to see BCBer Theo’s Spare Soul, who came down to Busch Stadium with his son hoping to see a division clinching; unfortunately, we all left disappointed.

I know Javy was hurt and couldn’t start, but I really wish Joe had just rolled the dice with Zobrist at shortstop for one game. The defensive alignment he sent out there to begin Tuesday’s game wasn’t optimal and it showed, and it might have been the difference in the game.

Give these Cubs credit: “WE NEVER QUIT” has been a mantra for this group for quite some time and they showed it in the late innings Tuesday night. This should show you how much all the Cubs players were into the game in the ninth:

The Cubs will clinch the division title soon, hopefully Wednesday night behind another former Cardinal, John Lackey, who will face Michael Wacha, and after that they can rest up some of the banged-up regulars who will await their division series matchup with the Nationals (and it will be the Nats, as the Dodgers clinched the N.L.’s best record Tuesday evening). A reminder that tonight’s game is an hour earlier at ESPN’s request. It will begin at 6:05 p.m. CT.