CHICAGO — With a new and different way to madden their archrivals each game, the Cardinals assured their place in the postseason by taking a Cubs' lead and bending it and warping it in the ninth inning to pull off something they had not done in a long, long time.
Not since the year Albert Einstein won the Nobel for physics.
With two runs in the ninth inning the Cardinals flipped the Cubs and won 3-2 Sunday at Wrigley Field to complete their first four-game sweep at the ballpark since 1921. After Jose Martinez's triple led to a tie game two batters into the ninth, Paul Goldschmidt pulled a double down the third-base line to score Tommy Edman for the winner. It was the second time in as many games that the Cardinals tied the game and won the game in the ninth inning. They won with a homer in the 10th inning Thursday.
"Another hard-fought, gritty, gutty game," manager Mike Shildt said. "Just relentless on our guys part and that’s the way we play baseball. That’s the way we compete."
The combination of the Cardinals' victory and the Cubs' loss clinched the Cardinals at least the second wild card berth into the National League playoffs. They had a brief toast in the clubhouse after the game. They were presented tee shirts that read, "Let's Get Wild." If a player wanted to drink some champagne, there was some available, complete with a postseason sticker and a label that had all of the players' names on it. All things being relative, the Cardinals have their eyes set on a larger prize.
They lopped their magic number to clinch the National League Central down to four.
“Listen we want to make sure we appreciate what we’ve accomplished and not take it lightly we’re in the postseason,” Shildt said. “But we’ve got our sights set on clinching this division. That’s where our head’s at.”
The berth in the playoffs is the Cardinals' first since 2015, and they are out to win their division for the first time since 2015. The Cubs fell seven games back. A weekend that started with the chance to catch and surpass the Cardinals has instead ended in disarray and dismay for the Cubs, who played their final home game of the regular season Sunday.
With closer Carlos Martinez having thrown in the four previous games, Andrew Miller handled the ninth against Ben Zobrist, a pinch-hitter, and former Cardinal Jason Heyward. The veteran lefty, who has been essential to the Cardinals run of wins this past week, allowed a hit and then retired Nico Hoerner to complete the game.
The Cardinals celebration on the field at Wrigley was predictably subdued as far as reaching the playoffs. (See below.) They went out for the customary handshake.
All four victories in the sweep were by one run. All of them featured a comeback late in the game.
"We’ve been a little bit of a second-half team and a lot of late-inning comebacks so it’s definitely a fitting way for us to find our way in," starter Miles Mikolas said. "There’s just an energy in the dugout – no matter what the score is – especially this time of year the way we’ve been playing, you can feel that energy building all game. It’s only a matter of time before we’re going to pop off for a couple of runs. It’s been a lot of fun."
Through his first eight innings of work Sunday, righthander Yu Darvish held the Cardinals to a solo homer and kept the pace peppy. The first of the Cubs pitchers to really control the Cardinals for any length of time at all, Darvish got to go for the complete-game as well.
The Cardinals did not have a plate appearance with a runner in scoring position until the ninth inning.
They produced runs in their first two.
Jose Martinez opened the ninth with a pinch-hit triple off the glove of new center field Albert Almora Jr. Pinch-runner Tyler O'Neill took over at third, and Dexter Fowler tied the game with a sacrifice fly to center.
“Just never giving up,” Goldschmidt said. “We’ve done that the whole year. We actually got the results. At times when we were struggling we kept saying, hey, the at-bats are good. Guys aren’t giving up. We weren’t able to get that big hit. We had a few days here where we were and hopefully that will continue.”
Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs' prized acquisition at the trade deadline, scored the Cubs' first two runs. He took home on a passed ball in the first inning, and in the sixth inning he snapped a 1-1 tie with a home run through the rain. Castellanos' 27th home run of the season -- and 16th since joining the Cubs on July 31.
The Brewers defeated Pittsburgh to remain three games behind the Cardinals.
The Cardinals tied the game in the same way they won the game Saturday -- with a home run from Paul DeJong. The Cardinals' shortstop launched a ball over the left-field bleachers on the second pitch he saw from Darvish in the third inning. The homer was his 29th of the season, and it offered an island of production surrounded by a sea of Ks. His first time through the Cardinals' lineup, Darvis struck out six batters.
He got five of them swinging, and Harrison Bader was caught looking.
Through eight innings, Darvish had 12 strikeouts.
The Cubs threatened to add on to their lead in the eighth inning as they finally chased Mikolas from the game. Mikolas pitched 7 2/3 innings and allowed two runs. One of them was unearned. The righthander struck out four and scattered eight hits through the game. He left with runners at the corners. Tyler Webb got a lineout from Kyle Schwarber to end the inning and keep the game within a run for the Cardinals entering the ninth.
That out proved pivotal -- prelude to the comeback.
Webb received the win for his work.
Despite the available champagne, the Cardinals took only a moment to celebrate the clinch before packing their gear and readying for the flight to Phoenix. A series opens Monday against the Diamondbacks.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry and bigger dreams to make happen,” Mikolas said. "Playoff berth is great. Wild card is awesome. We want the division. That’s what we’re going to go get."
In the third inning, Kris Bryant folded his right ankle and tumbled to the ground at first base. The former MVP had to leave the game with a sprained ankle, and the Cubs announced that X-rays taken at the ballpark did not reveal a fracture. Bryant was trying to outrun a double play -- one of three the Cardinals turned in the first four innings.
To pop or not to pop: Cardinals have 'bigger goals' than just clinching playoff berth
There could be champagne on the premises at Wrigley Field on Sunday for the Cardinals, but whether they do anything with it remains to be decided.
With a win Sunday, the Cardinals can clinch at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs. They will get tee shirts for this feat.
But will they spray?
"We'll let you guys know," manager Mike Shildt said.
Tradition has been for the Cardinals to celebrate the clinch of a division title or a wild-card berth if not still chasing a division title. They have not drowned a clubhouse in celebration for simply making the playoffs. Several years ago, then-manager Mike Matheny gathered the team after clinching a spot in the playoffs and told them to enjoy the accomplishment. He recounted how many players have appeared in the majors -- and then gave the slim number of them who had been to the playoffs once in their careers.
The team held a toast, and then shifted to focus on the division race.
In 2012, the Cardinals waited in a lounge at Busch Stadium to find out if they had reached the postseason as a wild card due to a loss on the west coast by the Dodgers. They had some spray, some toasts, some douses, but there was not the celebration before cameras and in the clubhouse. That waited until a few days later when they defeated the Braves in baseball's first wild-card play-in game.
The sentiment from some veteran players this was was to acknowledge the playoff berth -- the team's first since 2015 -- if it happens, but to celebrate a division title if they can hold off Milwaukee and the Cubs in the season's final week.
"We have bigger goals," infielder Kolten Wong.
The Cardinals' magic number for the division in five.
Any combination of Brewers' losses or Cardinals' wins that equals five in the final eight games of the season, and the Cardinals have their first division crown since 2015.
Additionally: Wong has been diagnosed with a Grade 2 strain (tear) of his left hamstring, he said. He was able to do some light walking and some stretching, but his focus has shifted to be ready for the final series of the regular season. The Cardinals host the Cubs next weekend.
Weather permitting, Cardinals have a chance Sunday to secure a spot in October
There are storm clouds brewing on the north side of the Windy City, and that's not just in the home dugout.
Forecasts call for some soggy and stormy weather Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, and that could complicate whether the Cardinals and Cubs can play their final scheduled game of the season at the Confines. There will be every effort made to get in the game so that the Cardinals do not have to return to Wrigley a week from Monday for a game that might not mean anything to them -- and everything for the Cubs.
The Cubs won't want to sacrifice a home game so that the game could be played as part of the weekend series at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals would have to return to Chicago.
If they play, the Cardinals have a chance to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2015, when they won the division.
A win for the Cardinals and a loss for the Cubs would assure the Cardinals of at least a wild-card berth in the 2019 postseason. The magic number for clinching the National League Central is five games.
The Cardinals are going for their first four-game sweep at Wrigley since 1921. That was a three-day visit that included a doubleheader. The Cardinals have won 11 World Series championships since then, and the Cubs have their one.
Here's the lineup:
1. Dexter Fowler, RF
2. Tommy Edman, 2B
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna, LF
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. Matt Carpenter, 3B
7. Paul DeJong, SS
8. Harrison Bader, CF
9. Miles Mikolas, P
Check back throughout the afternoon here at C-Beat and StlToday.com for ongoing coverage of the Cardinals-Cubs and any weather-related updates that are required.