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Cardinals 5, Cubs 4: Anthony Rizzo’s miraculous return is not enough

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Four days after a serious ankle injury, Rizzo came back and homered, but the Cubs lost.

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Usually, when the starting lineups are announced at Wrigley Field, I pay little mind. By then, I’ve already seen them via the teams’ Twitter accounts and filled out my scorecard, ready for the game to start.

And then, from Cubs PA announcer Andrew Belleson, came words no one was expecting to hear: “Leading off, the first baseman, number 44, Anthony Rizzo.”

Wait, what? The same guy who had to be helped off the field just four days earlier and whose season we thought might be over?

This was a surprise to everyone:

The announcement alone energized the crowd. And then Rizzo led the team, HIS team, onto the field. If you ever, ever doubted that man’s dedication to his work, or the Chicago Cubs, that should have laid those to rest forever. Rizzo’s return was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in recent Cubs history, and even before this he was the acknowledged team leader and one of the more beloved players in Cubs history.

He wants to win so badly. You can feel it. We all can feel it. And then he further gave the full house at Wrigley some excitement on leading off the bottom of the first inning:

Does this guy know how to work a crowd or what? Unfortunately, he struck out in that at-bat.

Rizzo’s mobility was still not very good. It was easy to see that when, with two Cardinals on base in the top of the third, Jack Flaherty laid down a bunt in Rizzo’s direction, something you had to figure they’d try. Rizzo had no chance to field it in time for an out, and the bases were loaded.

Kyle Hendricks induced a double-play ball, but a run scored to make it 1-0.

And then you knew, just knew, this was going to happen [VIDEO].

Who writes these scripts, anyway? The game was tied 1-1.

Kyle Hendricks got touched up for another run in the fifth, on a leadoff triple by Tommy Edman and single by Harrison Bader . Meanwhile, Flaherty was shutting down the Cubs. After Rizzo’s homer, Nicholas Castellanos singled... and then 10 straight Cubs were retired through the end of the sixth.

In the top of the sixth, the Cardinals appeared to break the game open. Paul Goldschmidt doubled and after Marcell Ozuna struck out, Hendricks hit Paul DeJong with a pitch. That turned out to be critical, an extra baserunner. Yadier Molina batted next [VIDEO].

Kyle Schwarber made a strong throw home, likely in time to get Goldschmidt, but Willson Contreras couldn’t hold on to the ball and the Cardinals had a 3-1 lead.

That was it for Hendricks, who deserved a better fate. Brad Wieck struck out Edman, but Bader doubled in DeJong for the fourth Cardinals run.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Cubs threatened again. Schwarber led off with a single, was wild-pitched to second and went to third on an infield out. Contreras hit a comebacker and Schwarber was hung out to dry between third and home, and eventually tagged out.

Danny Hultzen and Duane Underwood Jr. threw scoreless innings in the seventh and eighth, and those are names you would not have expected to see pitching high-leverage innings in relief in an important pennant-race game. Pedro Strop, who has struggled mightily much of the year and likely has never completely recovered from an earlier hamstring injury, threw a 1-2-3 ninth.

Three outs left. Wrigley Field was mostly silent.

Cubs batters woke up the crowd, finally. Castellanos led off with a walk off Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez. Kris Bryant singled him to second, and the tying run was at the plate. Schwarber struck out, but Zobrist brought the full house to life again [VIDEO].

Now it’s 4-2. It soon became 4-3, thanks to Contreras [VIDEO].

Willson hit the ball about 30 feet, but it was enough when Martinez threw wide of the plate.

Jason Heyward batted next. How many times have we seen him ground to second? This time, it tied the game [VIDEO].

Yes, that’s Javier Baez scoring the tying run. Javy had been cleared for pinch-running duty before the game, and he ran for Zobrist. Robel Garcia, running for Contreras (still being careful with Willson’s hamstring), represented the winning run on second base. Nico Hoerner had a chance for a walkoff hit, but flied to center.

Craig Kimbrel, also activated Thursday, entered to throw the 10th inning. He struck out Dexter Fowler.

Then disaster struck, in the form of Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, a longtime Cubs nemesis, has been reduced to spot duty with the emergence of Edman as the Cardinals’ regular third baseman. And keep in mind that Carpenter is only in this game because of a hamstring injury suffered by Kolten Wong. Kimbrel left a fastball in the middle of the zone and Carpenter parked it for a home run.

But yeah, that’s Joe Maddon’s fault. (Sarcasm intended.)

The Cubs went down 1-2-3 in the last of the 10th, though Castellanos briefly gave the crowd a thrill by driving a ball deep to center for the final out. He had earlier, in the first inning, hit a baseball 334 feet at nearly 100 miles per hour for an out:

That one got knocked down by the wind blowing in, in the first inning, otherwise we might be having a different discussion this morning.

On the subject of bad ball-and-strike calls: Yes, there were many. Some went against the Cubs, some in their favor, those are not the reason the Cubs lost this game. They are, again, an argument for the automated strike zone. I hope we get it soon.

This was a game the Cubs really needed to win. They now trail the Cardinals by four games in the N.L. Central with nine remaining. That’s not impossible, but now we are getting into “miracle comeback” territory. They’re one game behind the Brewers for the second wild card spot, which seems doable... except the Cubs have the three with the Cardinals this weekend, while the Brewers play the Pirates in Milwaukee, and you saw how the Pirates basically phoned it in last weekend at Wrigley. The Cubs likely have to win the three remaining games in this series just to keep pace with the Brewers. If they do that and finish the weekend one game back of St. Louis, well then, we’ll be in for a fun final week.

Thursday’s 5-4, 10-inning loss, then, was a microcosm of the season. Some absolutely thrilling moments, but in the end, there wasn’t quite enough against an opponent who appears to just be better.

Perhaps this team will prove that statement wrong over the next three days. I hope so. Meanwhile, Rizzo’s comeback will be something we will talk about for a long, long time:

More on how Rizzo’s return felt, as well as why you should never give up on this team, coming up from BCB’s Sara Sanchez here at 9 a.m. CT.

Meanwhile, Alec Mills is the guy who’s going to have to help find those ways to win Friday afternoon. He’s replacing Cole Hamels, who was scratched from Saturday’s start. Jose Quintana, who was originally slated to go Friday, will get an extra day of rest and start Saturday. St. Louis’ Friday starter is Michael Wacha. Game time is 1:20 p.m. CT and TV coverage will be via ABC7 Chicago, and nationally on MLB Network outside the Cubs and Cardinals market territories.