CHICAGO — The sugar rush from their first at-bats happened so swiftly, so sweetly that for almost a full entire inning it didn’t matter how inhospitable the surroundings have been this year because the Cardinals were finally where they wanted to be, ahead.
When the crash came it came hard, with no amount of ivy to cushion them.
Given a gift of a 4-0 lead in the first inning, the Cardinals let the Cubs skate, unchecked, for nine unanswered runs. The Cardinals didn’t get a hit after the second inning, didn’t get a ball out of the infield after the first. By the end of the fourth inning, Cubs leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber had tied the game and jettisoned starter Jack Flaherty from it on the way to a 9-4 victory at Wrigley Field that kept the archrivals winless in five games at the Friendly Confines. They’ve lost 19 of their previous 24 visits, few as carelessly as wasting a four-run first.
“Mental toughness and physical talent overcome roadblocks,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “I think that’s where you’re going – is this a roadblock? Clearly, we haven’t gotten it done here. We’ve got to figure out a way to shake hands at the end of nine innings. We’ve got to see the bottom of the ninth. But our ability to mentally focus and lock in and get it done – that’s what it’s going to take. That’s what it’s going to take in playoff baseball. That’s what it’s going to take here. And everybody in this clubhouse knows it.”
Victor Caratini’s pinch-hit, bases-clearing double in the sixth broke a 4-4 tie and completed the Cubs’ steady, inevitable rally. By the time the sixth was over, the Cubs had doubled the Cardinals’ score and Schwarber had his second RBI of the game. The first-place Cubs trumped the Cardinals’ fast start with a steadfast finish. Lefty Jon Lester – so vulnerable in the first inning that he allowed four runs on his first 16 pitches – ended up the winner after retiring the final 11 Cardinals he faced.
The Cardinals’ lineup had curled up in the warmth of a four-run lead and snoozed.
“We didn’t scratch and … you have to look internally first and foremost,” Shildt said. “Had him on the ropes again at 70-something pitches in the third and then he settled in and we made quicker outs and softer outs.”
The weekend set up so favorably for the Cardinals, for a breakthrough on the north side, for a smashing return to relevance in the division race. A rainout earlier in the week allowed the Cardinals to line up their pitching, and despite the creeping fog of strikeouts some sparks were starting to fly off the Cardinals’ lineup. They had just swept the Cubs in a three-game series at Busch Stadium. While St. Louis was transfixed by the feel-good Blues and their Stanley Cup Final run, the Cardinals headed to Chicago with a full pack of pitchers, a half tank of offense and, get this, a series not too far from Chicago’s annual Bluesfest.
The stage was set. The curtain drawn.
The Cardinals started strong, then warbled a familiar tune.
With a four-run lead thanks to homers by Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader in the first inning, Flaherty walked the first batter he faced. He walked two of the first three and didn’t get an out until his 16th pitch of the game. The pitcher the Cardinals believe Flaherty can be and increasingly need him to be is one who drains all the drama from a game like Saturday’s, not introduces more. By the end of the first inning, the game had taken 37 minutes to play and the Cubs had cleaved the Cardinals’ lead in half. Flaherty had thrown 26 pitches, yet had zero feel for his slider. For the first time in the majors he’d finish a start without a strikeout.
For the second time this season, he respond to a runaway inning from his teammates by walking a series of batters.
“Those are unacceptable things,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily him, it’s just us,” Shildt said. “It’s been too big of a consistent theme as far as the proverbial shutdown inning – and the walks. That’s the thing that bothers me the most. You get hits, you get hit. That’s going to happen. But we need to be in the strike zone. Six walks? That’s what this (Cubs) team does. If you walk them, you’re just asking for trouble against any club. This group doesn’t expand. They take their walks. We know going in we have to be on the plate. They’re not going to do a lot favors off the plate. They’re too dangerous for that recipe to work.”
Flaherty’s final batter captured his 3 2/3-inning outing. Schwarber worked Flaherty through an 11-pitch at-bat. Five of the final six pitches Schwarber saw were fastballs. He fouled off five consecutive full-count pitches. Flaherty lacked a put-away pitch, and finally Schwarber tied the game, 4-4, with a homer to right-center field.
The loss Saturday slipped the Cardinals to 31-31. With 100 games remaining in the season, they’ve yet to shake free from the gravitational pull of .500, and so many of the trends that Shildt recited during the darkest days of May have backslid. Lester (5-4) walked the second batter he faced, allowed a single to the next, and fell behind 3-0 to Ozuna. Here he was, the kindly neighborhood with the jumper cables ready to give the Cardinals’ battery a jolt, and he happened to wearing a Cubs cap. Ozuna was taking Lester’s 3-0 fastball – taking it deep.
“They gave me the green light,” Ozuna said. “I swing.”
Two batters later, Bader jumped on the first pitch he saw for a solo homer and the four-run lead. Kolten Wong slashed a single in the same inning – and that was the last ball the Cardinals got out of the infield. Lester grounded his four-seam fastball and tested the Cardinals with movement. They didn’t adjust. They went 18 consecutive batters against Lester without a ball reaching the outfield.
The Cubs would have retired the final 20 Cardinals batters of the game if not for a passed ball on what would have been a game-ending strikeout.
“What I make of it is we’ve got to play better,” Shildt said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to make more quality pitches and make them put the ball in play. We’ve done a lot of positive things here and everywhere. We’ve got to hit and pitch better here.
“It doesn’t taste good anywhere, much less here.”