CHICAGO — The wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field.
And now the air has gone out of the Chicago Cubs' season.
On the first two pitches of the ninth inning, the Cardinals hit back-to-back home runs against Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel to tie the game and then take the game. Yadier Molina's home run followed by Paul DeJong's homer sent the Cardinals to a 9-8 victory Saturday afternoon in a seesaw game that saw the Cardinals lose three leads and gain three leads and play the longest nine-inning game in Wrigley history -- at 4 hours, 24 minutes.
Now the Cardinals have a lead in the division that the Cubs cannot erase on their own.
"We’ve seen resilience all year," manager Mike Shildt said after the game. "Can’t be surprised by it but we proved it yet again. That’s how we play the game -- play the game the whole way. We were down three times kept fighting back. This team cares and it fights."
Down by a run in the top of the ninth, the Cardinals saw Kimbrel for the second time since he returned from injury. Against the former All-Star closer the Cardinals have had a simplified approach:
Avoid the slider.
They go up hunting fastballs. Molina did to tie the game, and DeJong followed to win it.
It was the Cardinals' third one-run win in three days.
“I didn’t want to get to his slider,” DeJong said. “Any first pitch fastball I could hit I wanted to swing at, and it happened to be the first one. Put a good swing on it. He obviously got pretty mad and bearing down a little bit more. I didn’t want to wait around.”
The first-place Cardinals, now 21 games better than .500, extended their lead to six games ahead of the third-place Cubs. The two rivals have only four games remaining this season, starting with Sunday's series finale at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals shaved their magic number down to five for the division title. Any combination of their wins or Brewers' losses that total five and the Cardinals are the NL Central champs for the first time since 2015.
Birthday boy Carlos Martinez walked Kris Bryant to put the tying run on base and then retired the next three Cubs, ending the game by quashing the theatrics of Javy Baez taking an at-bat for the first time since fracturing his thumb. An ovation greeted last year's NL MVP runnerup as he came to the plate with two out and one on in the ninth. A sigh ushered him off as the last out of Martinez's 23rd save and second in as many days.
“What do you say about Carlos – four days in a row?” Shildt asked. “That’s just straight heart and desire to compete for your team. Couldn’t have been a much bigger stage there at the end with Baez coming off the bench and Carlos getting the opportunity.”
The Cardinals arrived this week at Wrigley Field winless in their previous six games and all they've done since is school the listing the Cubs.
Though, they did their best to invite trouble early Saturday.
After Tommy Edman's triple in the first became the Cardinals' first lead, and they walked it walk, walk, walk away from them. Rookie starter Dakota Hudson, in his first start at Wrigley Field, walked four batters in the first inning. Twice he walked a batter with the bases loaded to force home a run. The third run of the inning came on a sacrifice fly, and by the end Hudson had thrown 38 pitches. He would get through only three innings.
In a game that progressed in fits and faults and stops and starts, it almost was one continuous motion that decided it.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, after Ben Zobrist had doubled, pinch-hitter Tony Kemp faced Cardinals' reliever Giovanny Gallegos. Gallegos got ahead 0-2 and on the third pitch of the at-bat got Kemp waving at the pitch for an apparent strikeout. Second base umpire Bill Welke disagreed. Because Gallegos did not stop his hands as he lowered his glove and broke into his delivery, Welke ruled a balk.
That put Zobrist at third and gave Kemp another pitch, at least.
He didn't need more than one.
With the wind gusting, Kemp got a ball in the air on the next pitch and it found the seats for a two-run homer that gave the Cubs a lead to protect through the eighth inning and into the ninth. The back and forth would eventually find Kimbrel in the top of the ninth inning.
The Cardinals took a lead in the top of the first, lost a lead in the bottom of the first. They regained the lead in the top of the fourth only to have the Cubs tie it in the bottom of the fourth.
In true College Football Saturday style, the game continued like this -- call, response, call, response.
The Cubs tied the game, 5-5, with Ian Happ's two-run homer as a pinch-hitter in the fourth inning. They extended that lead with Nico Hoerner's home run off Ryan Helsley in the sixth inning. And then it was the Cardinals turn to come up with a response.
Marcell Ozuna did with a two-run homer in the seventh that once again put the Cardinals ahead 7-6 going into the bottom of the seventh inning.
Then the wind shifted.
"I’ve been playing in this ballpark for a long time," Molina said. "I’ve got a pretty good idea of where the ball was flying today. It was one of those days when you’re going to put the ball in the air something is going to happen. I told the guys today to keep fighting. Anything can happen. They’ve got some power here. But we also have some power here."
While Wong is eager to push his way back, Cardinals preach caution for injured infielder
After confining most of his Cardinals-related activities to the tight quarters of an MRI on Friday, infielder Kolten Wong was back at the Friendly Confines early Saturday, on his toes, and ready to push.
The Cardinals preached caution.
Wong was diagnosed with a moderate tear of his left hamstring, he said, relaying the what he heard from the physicians who saw his MRI. He will meet with a team doctor in person on Saturday at the ballpark to get additional clarity on his injury, Wong said. While he waited he wanted to do something. Stretch. Jog. Move around. Prove he can contribute at some point, and some point soon.
"I’m going to go do some work right now," Wong said. "Go downstairs. Do some moving around. Try to get my legs going, whatnot, to see when I can be used. I feel good. The last time when I pulled my hamstring the day after I was super, super tight. This time, the day after I felt good. Flexibility was there, everything was there. Just a matter of the pain being there. Once that goes away then it’s all ready to go again."
The Cardinals' hesitance comes from the notion that if he tries to do too much he could do further harm to the injury and miss more time. The doctor will have to sign off on the pain-to-play approach once its determined that if Wong can tolerate the soreness that's it, that he can do no more damage to the area.
Wong said standing still and walking around did not hurt. Digging in as if he was getting ready to hit or field a ground ball caused soreness. There isn't a role he could have on the team at this point without being able to run, field or hit -- all things that involve engaging the hamstring.
Manager Mike Shildt said it could be another day or more before Wong advances to the kinds of baseball activities that would be a test for a return to the field.
Asked if this injury would put Wong on the injured list any other month besides September, Shildt agreed. The strain was that severe.
With Cubs shrinking from race, Cardinals stay grounded with rookie Hudson
Throughout the first two games of a series that could help define whether an era continues or ends -- abruptly -- for the Chicago Cubs, manager Joe Maddon has pulled ever lever, pushed every button that he has.
Anthony Rizzo returned days early from an ankle injury and homered. Nine different pitchers were used to cover nine innings Friday. And on Saturday Jose Quintana starts a day after originally scheduled as Maddon plays the matchups to find a pitching edge with Cole Hamels sidelined. The Cubs and their manager have done just about everything against the Cardinals.
Everything except win.
The Cardinals go for the series victory Saturday at Wrigley Field with rookie Dakota Hudson as their starter. The team hopes to get a real grip on Kolten Wong's hamstring injury and a sense of if he'll be able to return to the lineup at some point during the final week of the regular season.
With a 10th-inning win Thursday and a 2-1 nailbiter Friday, the Cardinals have opened up a five-game lead on the third-place Cubs with eight games remaining, five head-to-head. A win in any of those games and the Cardinals assure that the Cubs no longer have control of their own destiny.
Let alone their claim to a dynasty.
Hudson made his major-league debut against the Cubs in July 2018, but he's yet to start against the rivals, let alone at Wrigley Field. His 31st start of his rookie season will come with a chance to move the Cardinals' magic number to five games with eight to play.
Here's the lineup that will back him:
1. Dexter Fowler, RF
2. Tommy Edman, 2B
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna, LF
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. Paul DeJong, SS
7. Matt Carpenter, 3B
8. Harrison Bader, CF
9. Dakota Hudson, P
1. Rizzo, 1B
2. Castellanos, RF
3. Bryant, 3B
4, Schwarber, LF
5. Zobrist, 2B
6. Caratini, C
7. Heyward, CF
8. Hoerner, SS
9. Quintana, P
The Cardinals are arriving at the ballpark later in the morning for the second of three consecutive afternoon games at Wrigley Field. The team expects Wong to go through another evaluation at some point Saturday and by mid-afternoon or early evening have a sense of the damage he did to his left hamstring in Thursday's game.
Check back here at STLtoday.com for updates throughout the day.