CHICAGO — Under the Cubs’ spell at Wrigley Field, under their thumb in the division, and under them in the standings the past three years, the Cardinals returned to the scene of their demise as a playoff team with plenty to overcome and wins to be claimed.
They’ve done much more than that.
They’ve returned to power.
On the first two pitches of the ninth inning Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homered off Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel to tie the game and then take the game, 9-8, on Saturday at the suddenly Friendlier Confines. All weekend the Cubs have thrown everything they have at the first-place Cardinals, from the theatrical returns from injuries by All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez to a $43-million closer to nine different pitchers in one game. There was a costly balk, two pinch-hit homers, and even a dancing Ben Zobrist from the Cubs on Saturday, and the Cardinals have been undaunted. Packing counterpunch after counterpunch into the longest nine-inning game in Wrigley history, the knockout went to the Cardinals. After a run of three seasons as the team to beat in the National League Central, the Cubs are a dynasty abbreviated.
“Going out there making some noise, making waves,” DeJong said. “A true testament to our team. Winning every moment. Picking each other up. There was a time when we could have mailed it in. But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.
“Truly an amazing game,” he added. “I lost my voice screaming so much.”
Their third one-run victory in as many days at Wrigley put the Cardinals in position to clinch a playoff berth as early as Sunday. They have larger aspirations than a postseason participation ribbon, but the poetry of the moment won’t be lost. Not since losing to the Cubs at Wrigley in 2015 have the Cardinals been to the postseason, and a fourth consecutive year without October in St. Louis would be the longest absence in more than a generation.
The first-place Cardinals (88-67) shaved their magic number to clinch the division to five ahead of the Brewers and extended their lead on the third-place Cubs (82-73) to six games. They have four head-to-head games remaining. In more than a century of intertwined history, this is the first time the archrivals have met this late in the season and this close in the standings, and the Cardinals have used their visit to restore their order.
“It feels good to be back in the driver’s seat,” starter Adam Wainwright said.
Before the air continued leaking out of the Cubs’ season, the wind was gusting out of Wrigley. Wackiness ensued. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt saw a ball carry and carry to right field and turned to bench coach Oliver Marmol in the first inning to suggest they rethink their outfield positioning for the afternoon. In the seventh, after the Cubs reclaimed the lead with a homer, Molina told everyone on the mound during a pitching change that a fly ball was as good as a homer Saturday. He then proved his point by lifting Kimbrel’s first pitch of the ninth into the air and letting it soar into the bleachers.
DeJong, eager to avoid Kimbrel’s slider, did the same – drilling the first-pitch fastball he saw for the game-winning homer. It was Kimbrel’s second appearance in three days and he’s allowed three homers – one to tie a game, two to lose games. DeJong’s homer was the seventh lead change of the 4-hour, 24-minute game.
“Sixteen-ounce gloves for that fight right there,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, likening the game to a heavyweight fight. “Two shots to the jaw. Like, boom, boom.”
The Cardinals landed the first tap of the game when Tommy Edman’s first-inning triple became a 1-0 lead. The Cubs answered by backing the Cardinals into the corner in the bottom of the inning. Starter Dakota Hudson had a difficult time harnessing the movement on his sinker — “Corralling it,” Shildt said — and he walked four batters, including two with the bases loaded. The Cubs scored thrice in the inning, forced Hudson to throw 38 pitches, but never delivered the haymaker. The Cardinals got a few body blows in with three runs in the fourth, and pinch-hitter Ian Happ landed an uppercut with a two-run homer to tie the game. Nico Hoerner scored the sixth for the Cubs with a solo homer and a 6-5 lead.
Weak-kneed for a few weeks during a seven-for-62 (.113) vertigo, Marcell Ozuna jabbed the Cardinals back into the lead with a two-run homer in the top of the seventh.
Then came what’s inevitable in every bout — a controversial decision.
With Zobrist on second — tap-dancing off the base like he would behind the base when Ozuna was at the plate — Giovanny Gallegos got ahead 0-2 on pinch-hitter Tony Kemp. Kemp waved at the third pitch for what appeared to be a strikeout before second-base ump Bill Welke signaled for a balk. Gallegos’ hands did not come set before he threw the pitch. Zobrist got third. Kemp got another pitch – and put it into the crowd for an 8-7 lead.
“He just ran through it,” Shildt said. “Bill doesn’t want to make that call there. Rules are rules. If he ran through it, he ran through it. You’ve got to make the call.”
Each of these games so far has been a marathon of button-pushing and lever-pulling for both teams, sometimes at a maddening crawl. The Cubs have used 16 pitchers to throw eight innings the past two days. Two players advertised as too injured to play in this series, Rizzo (ankle) and Baez (thumb), have had key moments. Down to his final out against Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez, Maddon turned to Baez for his first at-bat since fracturing his thumb. The Cubs had the tying run on base, their season in the balance, and Martinez struck out Baez on a 99-mph fastball for his second save in as many days, his 23rd on his 28th birthday.
It also clinched a comeback that the Cardinals said should be familiar to the Cubs. After several years of the Cubs questing for a decade of dominance like the Cardinals had, they’ve see their reign receding, with red in their eyes.
“Almost like we learned from them having a lead here and blowing it,” DeJong said.
The Cardinals came to Wrigley back in control of the division.
They’ll leave having given the sub-leaser its eviction notice.
“We came over here to play a game, a really good game, and right now we don’t care who we’re facing,” Molina said. “We showed the Cubs the same team that we’re going to show the Diamondbacks the next three games and the same team we’re going to show the Cubs again. We’re ready to fight. We believe in ourselves. The last three years have been tough. They’ve had some good teams. We also had good teams, but we have not shown that.
“This year, we’ve shown we can be on the top.”
They have now won 30 times in their last 42 games, losing consecutive games (no more than two) just twice during this climb. Their biggest strength? A new hero can emerge at any time.