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CHICAGO – Whatever the Cardinals gained in the standings or Matt Carpenter seized by saving the Cardinals from a bitter, corrosive loss, their relief was muted Thursday because of what they may have lost for a significant stretch of the division race.

Immediately after the Cardinals and closer Carlos Martinez misplaced a three-run lead in the ninth inning, Carpenter answered with a solo homer to send the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory in the 10th inning Thursday night at Wrigley Field. Carpenter was only in the game at that moment and batting in that spot because Kolten Wong had to leave the game with a left hamstring injury. The severity of the injury was not immediately known as the second baseman continued to undergo tests. The team called him “day to day.” And then his teammates did what they could to take an important stride toward lengthening their season for his return.

Socked by the Cubs’ rally in the ninth inning, the Cardinals had to face Craig Kimbrel on his first day back from injury. The longtime, shutdown closer struck out the first batter he faced to bring up Carpenter, in Wong’s customary No. 2 spot. Carpenter pounced on the first pitch he saw – a fastball – and put it into the seats of center field.

With Carpenter’s 13th homer of the season as his only cushion, Giovanny Gallegos worked a scoreless 10th to get the Cardinals their first win of the season at Wrigley.

The masterpiece Jack Flaherty offered with eight stellar innings only took a few brushstrokes in the ninth inning to turn into a tie game and a no decision.

The wily ninth inning became a race between Martinez and the Cubs – could one get three outs before the other got three runs. The Cubs got him, in a walk. The first two batters of the inning reached base, and Ben Zobrist started the scoring with an RBI double threaded down the first-base line. Zobrist’s hit put the tying run in scoring position. The tying run got to third on an infield single by Willson Contreras and then pinch-runner Javier Baez scored on Jason Heyward’s groundout. By then Martinez had already yielded the mound to lefty Andrew Miller. The veteran reliever got the groundout from Heyward and a fly out to steer the game into extra innings.

Given a three-run head start toward his 22nd save of the season, Martinez was instead stuck with the blown save, three hits against, and all three earned runs.

Carpenter’s rescue meant the first-place Cardinals opened up a four-game lead on the Cubs and dropped their archrival into third place in the division. The Milwaukee Brewers, the defending division champs, remained on the Cardinals tail, three games behind. The victory on Thursday assures that the Cardinals, no matter what happens in the three remaining games of the series, will leave Chicago with a grip on a postseason berth. The Cubs cannot catch them – this weekend.

The Cardinals and Cubs have six games remaining on the schedule, including a three-game series in a week to end the regular season at Busch Stadium.

Flaherty awaits them, if necessary.

Scheduled for a meaningful start at Wrigley Field a year ago, Flaherty made the most of finally getting it Thursday. The second-year starter allowed a single run – on a solo homer – as he breezed through eight innings on 118 pitches. He struck out eight and shaved his overall ERA to less than 3.00 for the first time April 10. Since the All-Star break the righthander has allowed 10 earned runs in 85 1/3 innings for a 1.05 ERA. That span includes two wins against the Cubs – during which he’s allowed a run on one swing in 15 innings.

The Cardinals had lost all six of their previous games at Wrigley this season, but manager Mike Shildt cautioned about reading too much into the losing streak. They hadn’t been to Wrigley since June. That was back when Flaherty hadn’t found his groove, before Paul Goldschmidt had his Player of the Month Award, and before former Cub Dexter Fowler had moved into leadoff, let alone Wong joining him atop the lineup.

“This is a different team that we’re bringing in than some of those other teams coming in here,” Shildt said before the game. “I feel good about what we’re bringing. I think we’ve grown. There’s no question. This team has gotten better as the season’s gone on. That’s what we do.”

Take Tommy Edman, for example.

Edman made his major-league debut at Wrigley earlier this season, and since he’s hit and fielded his way into an everyday role. He showcased why Thursday. Edman led off the third with a single and scored on a double play for a 1-0 lead. He had a stand-up triple into the right-field corner to open the fifth and scored on Bader’s first RBI. After Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks had left the game, Bader added another RBI in the sixth as the Cardinals extended their lead during an inning that also included Goldschmidt’s savvy baserunner. On a ball bobbled in left field, Goldschmidt raced around third and home. The throw beat him by a stride, but as Cubs catcher Contreras lost control of it, Goldschmidt swerved around the catch and reached for the plate as he slid past it.

The game began with the return of a handful of injured Cubs – none more shocking that Anthony Rizzo’s – and then it curdled on the Cardinals with the departure of Wong.

Wong hit a groundball to Rizzo at first base in the fifth inning, and in Wong’s attempt to leg out a hit he injured his left hamstring. Wong pulled up at the base after being thrown out, reached for his leg, and then hobbled off the field, accompanied by a team trainer. The severity of the injury was not immediately known, though the team described Wong’s availability as “day to day” before he could be taken for a deeper scan of the injury.

A teammate of Wong’s recently described him as the “team’s MVP” for the season, given the influence Wong has had as a Gold Glove Award-caliber second baseman and the rise he’s had in the lineup. Wong forced his way into the No. 2 spot of the order by hitting .342 since the All-Star break with a .410 on-base percentage and a .900 OPS. He has been the steadiest hitter on the team and a reliable source for getting on base. Wong’s .361 on-base percentage is the second highest of his career, surpassed only by 2017’s .376.

The Cardinals had reached late September relatively untouched by injury, outside of the longterm recovery of closer Jordan Hicks (elbow).

Consider the Cubs for contrast.

For the stretch of games that could define whether the Cubs remain a power in the division, they were not expected to have MVP-caliber players Rizzo and Javier Baez (fractured thumb) and high-priced closer Craig Kimbrel or infielder Addison Russell. All four came back in some way to the team on Thursday, none more dramatically than Rizzo. Four days after the club said he would spend the series in a protective boot, Rizzo was instead in the lineup. The first baseman tested his injured ankle by running in right field as his teammates warmed up for the game, and the Cardinals were notified within 20 minutes of first pitch that Rizzo would be the Cubs’ leadoff hitter for the game.

It took a few innings for his Willis Reed moment to arrive.

Down by a run after 2 ½ innings, Rizzo hit a two-out solo homer to tie the game, 1-1, in the third. The home run, his 27th of the season, came on a 95-mph fastball from Flaherty – the first pitch of the at-bat. He had tested Rizzo only with strikes in the first inning and struck out the lefthanded hitter, who hugs the plate. The homer against Flaherty came in the bottom of the same inning when Flaherty got the best of Rizzo.

With two runners on, Flaherty dropped a bunt to the third-base side of the mound. Because third baseman Kris Bryant retreated to his base, Rizzo, clearly limited by his ankle, had to sweep from his side of the field to retrieve the ball. Hendricks did not give chase. Flaherty outran the throw to load the bases with no outs. Exploiting Rizzo’s limited range proved pivotal as Fowler grounded into a double play, but a run scored for the 1-0 lead.

After Rizzo’s homer tied the game, Flaherty held the Cubs there. He struck out three of the next seven batters he faced, and at one point retired 10 consecutive Cubs.

Both dugouts had issues with home-plate umpire Bill Welke’s strike zone. Flaherty caught Kris Bryant looking at fastballs on the inside edge that the former MVP felt were too far inside to be a strike. On the other side, Hendricks twice got Marcell Ozuna looking a called strike three on an off-speed pitch that hooked back over the outside edge of the plate.

***

Wong, Cardinals' leading hitter in second half, leaves game with hamstring injury

The parade of Cubs returning from injury -- or semi-returning from injury -- on Thursday made all the headlines because, well, they had a laundry list of stars dealing with injuries.

Th Cardinals, by contrast, had been relatively unscathed.

That changed in the fifth inning.

Second baseman Kolten Wong, who arguably has been the Cardinals' best player in the second half, was removed from the game with an injury to his left hamstring. The Cardinals announced the diagnosis during the game. The severity of the injury is not yet known.

On a groundball to first base, Wong sped from the batter's box, but eased up as he neared the bag and was thrown out. He reached for his leg and was clearly running tender before turning and limping to the dugout, escorted by a team trainer.

The Cardinals lead 2-1 going into the sixth inning. Both runs have been scored by Tommy Edman. The rookie infielder moved from third to second after Wong's injury, and Matt Carpenter took over at third, batting second for Wong.

***

Slowed by injury, Rizzo and Cubs pull a fast one on Cardinals; he'll bat leadoff

The giveaway was the socks.

Shortly before first pitch Thursday night at Wrigley Field, Anthony Rizzo emerged from the Cubs' dugout in full uniform, and he had his socks up high. He was supposed to be in a protective boot through the entire series, not flashing the stirrups as early as the first game of the series.

Yet, there he was -- running sprints in right field, running as if rounding a base, taking leads off first, moving around, proving he could play.

And play he will.

With less than 20 minutes to go before first pitch, the Cubs announced a new lineup with Rizzo leading off.

He could be the opener. Or he could be Willis Reed. It's not clear.

Rizzo injured his ankle fielding the ball Sunday at Wrigley Field, and his cleat took up a divot in the infield that still hasn't healed entirely. He was using a scooter to move around the clubhouse as recently as the previous series here at Wrigley, and the Cubs had openly advertised how he wouldn't be available for the series against the Cardinals.

Here's the Cubs' new lineup:

1. Anthony Rizzo, 1B

2. Nicholas Castellanos, RF

3. Kris Bryant, 3B

4. Kyle Schwarber, LF

5. Ben Zobrist, 2B

6. Willson Contreras, C

7. Jason Heyward, CF

8. Nico Hoerner, SS

9. Kyle Hendricks, P

***

Winless at Wrigley, Cardinals aim to solve Hendricks and tighten grip on first place

The final result came an hour, maybe more, after the Cardinals had already arrived at their hotel in Chicago, on the eve of what arguably is the most important series ever this late in the regular season between these two storied rivals.

The Cubs had lost, in extra innings, to the Cincinnati Reds.

That outcome dropped the Cardinals' archrivals to three games back in the division and shaved the Cardinals' magic number to clinch the division down to eight. That outcome meant that it would take a sweep for the Cubs to vault over the Cardinals and into first place in the National League Central.

Of course, sweep is what they've done here at Wrigley Field all season.

The Cardinals arrive for the four-game series on the North Side winless in six previous games here. They have been Maddux'ed by Thursday starter Kyle Hendricks, they have been undone by a longtime farmhand, they have had Kris Bryant hit a grand slam, and they have seen Kyle Schwarber cause them more headaches than any other team.

They are 0-6, outscored in those six games by more than 20 runs, and they have lost by three or fewer runs in that stretch only twice.

Some of the games haven't been close.

Once they scored four runs on Jon Lester for a 4-0 lead and still lost 9-4. They've found all sorts of ways to lose.

To claim the division, they must find one way to win.

The Cubs arrive limited by injury as first baseman Anthony Rizzo (ankle) is in a boot and out of the series. Javy Baez (thumb fracture) remains out indefinitely. Closer Craig Kimbrel has also been dealing with an injury (Update: Kimbrel is available Thursday night out of the Cubs' bullpen and Baez will pinch run if needed.) The Cubs are not the roster they imagined, and the Cardinals are not the offense they imagined.

The first game of the weekend series is an encore of the first game of the year at Wrigley between these two teams. Jack Flaherty draws the start against Kyle Hendricks, who threw an 81-pitch shutout against the Cardinals in early May. Those were the fewest pitches needed for a shutout by a Cub pitcher since Jon Lieber in 2001. Hendricks' gift is his changeup and how he can get teams reaching from the zone to make weak contact on it. He's the kind of pitcher the Cardinals have had trouble with in the past weeks -- one eager to throw off-speed and capable of expanding the zone.

Here's the lineup that will face Hendricks — and back Flaherty:

1. Dexter Fowler, RF

2. Kolten Wong, 2B

3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B

4. Marcell Ozuna, LF

5. Paul DeJong, SS

6. Yadier Molina, C

7. Tommy Edman, 3B

8. Harrison Bader, CF

9. Jack Flaherty, P

In his career, Flaherty has made four starts at Wrigley and he's 1-2 with a 6.35 ERA. He's 2-2 with a 3.60 ERA in eight games (seven starts) against the Cubs, and one of the early dazzling starts of his second-half dominance came at Busch Stadium against the Cubs over the trade deadline week. He struck out nine and held the Cubs scoreless through seven innings. 

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