Whatever chance the Cardinals had to take advantage of the Colorado Rockies storming away against Milwaukee on their behalf, crumbled and then cratered in a disastrous seventh inning Friday night.
A laborious, lengthy, 4-hour, 4-minute game curdled on the Cardinals when the bullpen got involved with nine outs to get.
A 1-1 game splintered apart on Andrew Miller and Ryan Helsley, neither of who could retire more than two of the batters they were assigned. The meandering Cubs, losers of seven consecutive coming into the final weekend series at Busch Stadium, scored seven runs and pulled away for an 8-2 victory. Robel Garcia came off the bench to pinch hit in the sixth inning and hit a three-run homer at the climax of that decisive seventh.
The earliest the Cardinals (90-70) could clinch the National League Central division title at the beginning of this series was Saturday.
That has not changed.
The Brewers' loss in Denver drops the Cardinals' magic number down to two. Any combination of Milwaukee losses or Cardinals wins that equal two and the Cardinals win the division. A Brewers loss Saturday coupled with a Cardinals win earlier in the evening and the locals are celebrating Saturday night.
They have a one-game lead with two games to play.
Dakota Hudson pitched five scoreless innings and had a career-best 10 strikeouts. But his combination of 10 Ks and five walks -- once loading the bases with three walks (see below) -- skyrocketed his pitch count to 97 pitches. That brought the bullpen into play just in time for the Cubs to great Giovanny Gallegos with a solo homer by Ian Happ in the top of the sixth.
The Cardinals answered with Matt Carpenter's 14th homer of the season.
Carpenter and Tommy Edman reached base four teams apiece. They would each score two runs as the offense all around them fizzled.
In the bottom of the seventh, the scoreboard battered by the Cubs' rally but promising hope from Colorado, the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs. Yadier Molina had already driven home Edman for the Cardinals' second run of the game. Paul DeJong came up with the bases loaded and a chance to chomp into the Cubs' lead. He flew out to center field.
The Cardinals' regulars have managed a total of four runs in their past 27 innings played as a group. Three of those runs have come on homers.
Cardinals' bullpen craters in Cubs' seven-run inning, but Brewers lose
That neat, tidy, taut the Cardinals and Cubs had going for a few hours came apart, spectacularly, on the hosts at Busch Stadium in the top of the seventh inning.
The Cardinals threw three different relievers, including two lefties, at the Cubs and could not stop the runaway rally that has given the rivals a 8-1 lead going into the bottom of the seventh. Veteran lefty Andrew Miller retired only one of the five batters he faced, and rookie Ryan Helsley allowed a three-run homer to a Cub who didn't enter the game until the sixth inning as a pinch-hitter.
In total, the Cardinals' bullpen allowed seven runs on six hits.
Miller hit a batter and walked a batter.
Helsley allowed three hits. Three of the five batters he faced scored.
As the Cardinals prepare for the postseason, they have increasingly leaned on Helsley to assert his place on a playoff roster as a middle-inning fireballer. They have also given rookie lefty Genesis Cabrera a chance to show how he could play off Miller and Tyler Webb as a mid-game lefty. Cabrera has done well in spot appearances, and it took him facing one batter for the Cardinals to get free of the seventh inning. Kyle Schwarber sent a ball to the warning track against Cabrera. That's where Marcell Ozuna caught it for the final out -- near the wall.
Miller is a pivot point for the Cardinals' bullpen. Whether they face Washington in the wild-card game or they advance to see Atlanta or the Dodgers in the division series there will be lefties he has to face and has to neutralize for the Cardinals to have success.
He did a week ago. He didn't Friday.
Miller hit Victor Caratini with a pitch to end his outing after Ian Happ had doubled home a run and Willson Contreras had singled. A wild pitch from Miller also allowed a run home.
The go-ahead run came on the Happ's RBI double.
All of this happened as the Colorado Rockies got a grand slam and pulled ahead of the Brewers with 11 runs through eight innings. A Rockies' win would knock the Cardinals' magic number down to two. It would also maintain the Cardinals' lead of one game ahead of Milwaukee with two games remaining in the regular season.
UPDATE: Milwaukee loses. Cardinals' magic number drops to two. They can clinch Saturday, which was the earliest they could clinch coming into this series.
Hudson strikes out 10, but bullpen bobbles slim lead; Cubs tie game, 1-1
If not for Albert Almora Jr. timing his leap and stealing a home run from Yadier Molina, the Cardinals would still have the lead and the bullpen would have had some welcome insurance headed into the top of the sixth inning.
Almora, who his teammates once described defensively as Jim Edmonds Jr. in center field, timed his leap just right so that he could get full extension with his glove and snag Molina's hit before it kissed the plants between the wall and the fans. Molina could only grin as he rounded first and saw Almora show off the ball.
It was the second time in as many at-bats that Almora had robbed a hit from Molina. In the first, it was a would-be double.
Even as the Rockies pull away from Milwaukee with a grand slam at Coors Field, the Cardinals and Cubs remain tied, 1-1, after an exchange of homers.
Matt Carpenter got a ball behind Almora's reach by putting it in the Cubs' bullpen for a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth. The Cubs answered with Ian Happ's solo homer to lead off the sixth. Happ's game-tying bolt greeted reliever Giovanny Gallegos and ended Dakota Hudson's chance to grab a win from the evening.
Hudson set a new career high with 10 strikeouts, but the combination of those and five walks was brutal on his pitch count. He got 15 outs on 97 pitches and left four innings for the bullpen to cover.
Hudson slides out of bases-loaded jam to maintain scoreless tie through three innings
The Cardinals started this finale series against the Cubs walking a tightrope in the standings, with only the wild card to catch them if they fall.
Dakota Hudson had the same approach in the third inning.
The Cardinals' rookie sinkerballer, making his second start against the Chicago Cubs in a week, walked the bases loaded in the third inning and saw his pitch count bloat. The scoreboard took no notice, however. Hudson walked the first three batters in the Cubs lineup to load the bases with two outs. That brought cleanup hitter Willson Contreras to the plate.
Hudson struck him out on three pitches to strand the bases loaded and keep the score tied, 0-0.
That's where it is through 3 1/2 innings Friday at Busch Stadium.
The trouble Hudson has pitched into he has also been able to slide free from with a career-high nine strikeouts already. He has struck out half of the 18 Cubs he's faced through four scoreless innings.
In the potentially disastrous third inning, Hudson had two true outcomes. He either walked the batter or struck him out. He was able to keep the Cubs from scoring by getting three of each.
The Cardinals have threatened in three of the first four innings, doing so with doubles in the first inning and a double to lead off the fourth inning. The Cardinals meanwhile have Tommy Edman.
Kolten Wong's sub at No. 2 in the lineup and secondbase, has singled and doubled in his first two at-bats. He got to second in the first inning when Marcell Ozuna accepted a walk. In the third inning, Edman's one-out double did nothing else as Paul Goldschmidt flew out and Ozuna grounded out. Ozuna slipped deeper into what's become a 12-for-99 funk.
Wong making strides toward return, but Wacha's doubtful for start of playoffs
Having already had a dress rehearsal Thursday at Busch Stadium while many of his teammates enjoyed the final off day of the regular season, Kolten Wong jumped into batting practice and other baseball activities Friday with an eye on being available somehow, some way before the end of the weekend.
The Cardinals want to see how the infielder responds to the increase in activity before committing to whether he'll be in the starting lineup at all this weekend.
Wong tore his hamstring this past weekend at Wrigley Field, and he returned to St. Louis to rest, recover, and rehab while the team played a series in Phoenix. Wong was able to jog and then run over the past few days, and he also accelerated his baseball activities. He's taken groundballs and he's taken batting practice. The question for Wong and the Cardinals is how he feels the day after such activity and whether he can get to a point where they minimize the risk of aggravating the injury.
Wong said he's moving at about 70 percent to 80 percent full-speed, and that the goal is to push that ahead again Saturday and then ahead again Sunday. It could mean that he won't start any games in the regular-season finale.
He's fine with that.
"If anything," Wong said at his locker Friday afternoon, "it gives me a little breather for the next push."
Michael Wacha's MRI revealed a strain in his shoulder. He will go at least five days without throwing a baseball. That effectively rules him out for the National League division series, which will open Thursday if the Cardinals qualify for it. Wacha's role on the postseason roster was already uncertain as he spent most of the month as the fifth starter.
The injury makes the decision for the Cardinals.
"I expect Michael to be able to pitch for us again this year," manager Mike Shildt said.
The injury is not related to or an indicator of the stress fracture that Wacha has fought in the right shoulder before, general manager Michael Girsch said. The plan is for Wacha to take a few days of rest and then see how he feels throwing a baseball Wednesday or Thursday.
The Cardinals start the weekend series with the Cubs leading the NL Central by one game ahead of the Brewers.
The Cubs, since the Cardinals swept them in Wrigley a week ago, have not won a game and plummeted out of contention. Their manager, Joe Maddon, does not have a contract for next season and this could be the last time he's at Busch Stadium as the rivals' manager. This will be the first season in his five years with the Cubs that the team did not qualify for the playoffs.
The Cardinals magic number is three. The only way they control their own destiny when it comes to the division title is to win all three games.
After getting a break Wednesday following the 19-inning loss, the regulars return to the lineup in time to face the Cubs. Here it is:
1. Dexter Fowler, RF
2. Tommy Edman, 3B
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. Dakota Hudson, P
The Cardinals intend to have Miles Mikolas or Jack Flaherty start Sunday, depending on what that game means to the standings and to their title aspirations. If the game is meaningless, it's possible neither pitcher will start that game and it will go to Daniel Ponce de Leon, who would be on turn for the outing.
By moving Adam Wainwright up a day to start Saturday the Cardinals assure the veteran gets one more start at Busch Stadium this season, in case it is his final season with the club.
Here's the lineup the Cubs are sporting, without apologies:
1. Tony Kemp, CF
2. Nicholas Castellanos, RF
UPDATE: The Cubs altered their lineup here, deleting Castellanos and moving every player up one spot.
3. Ben Zobrist, 2B
4. Kyle Schwarber, LF
5. Willson Contreras, C
6. Ian Happ, 3B
7. Victor Caratini, 1B
8. Nico Hoerner, SS
Albert Almaro Jr. is batting eighth and playing center field.
9. Alec Mills, P
Check back throughout the evening here at Cardinal Beat and STLtoday.com for ongoing coverage from the ballpark. Rick Hummel is at the keyboard for the game coverage in Saturday's paper, and you're stuck with me on the game blog. I will keep the Spider-Man jubilation to a minimum.
That's my promise to the people who have read this far and deserve thanks.