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Cards and Cubs rain delay on Sunday, July 29, 2018

Cubs' Jason Heyward slides home on a double by Javier Baez in the July 29 game at Busch Stadium. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

That statement the Cardinals have been seeking, the stand they wanted to make to back their claims, flex their improvement, and reveal an iron-clad grip on a rising trajectory slipped from their fingers late Sunday night.

A tight, crisp game, the kind of which game the Cardinals have been winning recently, softened in the fifth inning when Yairo Munoz rushed a play on a grounder to second base and the Cubs quickly capitalized. Three unearned runs snapped a tie game and sent the Cubs to a 5-2 victory at Busch Stadium. The loss kept the Cardinals from sweeping the first-place Cubs and – just as vital at this point in the season – finishing a telling stretch with a winning record.

Under scrutiny with the trade deadline approaching, the Cardinals had a chance to have a winning record in their past eight games against the rival Cubs, and finished 4-4. They had a chance to have a winning record in a key 11-game stretch, and slipped instead to 5-6.

They aren’t receding anymore.

They aren’t advancing, though.

“It shows what we already knew – that we can compete with anybody,” said interim manager Mike Shildt, who has steered the club to 6-6 in his first dozen games. “We ultimately compete against ourselves. We set our bar against how we play. It’s a good barometer playing a team we’re chasing. Go 4-4 – not what we’d like. Just won the series, so we’re encouraged by that.”

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks held the Cardinals to the two runs they got from Marcell Ozuna’s first-inning homer. The Cardinals managed only two more hits off Hendricks, and once the righthander got a feel for his changeup he retired the final 17 Cardinals he faced. From Munoz’s double in the second inning to his leadoff walk in the eighth, the Cardinals did not get a baserunner. Not until the eighth did they bring the tying run to the plate and came up with zero in two chances. The Cardinals tumbled to 1-30 this season when scoring two or fewer runs, and that lack of, well, anything against Hendricks (7-9) left them exposed to even the littlest thing.

In an aggressive move in the fifth inning, Shildt turned to lefty Austin Gomber for the top of the Cubs’ order immediately after a runner reached against starter John Gant. The Cardinals’ righthander held the Cubs to two solo homers before No. 9 hitter David Bote struck an infield single that ricocheted off Gant. Gomber came in to face lefthanded batters Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward with switch-hitter Ben Zobrist sandwiched between.

The matchup tilted Gomber’s way considering Zobrist has a higher penchant for a groundball against a lefty, and a groundball is what the Cardinals desired.

It’s also what Gomber gave them.

Rizzo chopped a groundball up the middle that Munoz made a diving stop on to get one out at second. Zobrist hit a hard groundball that hugged the line for a double and his third of four hits. That only moved Rizzo to third and kept the game tied with two outs. Heyward obliged with a soft grounder to second. He blitzed from the batter’s box, and that caused Munoz to rush just enough that he muffed the exchange from glove to hand. Heyward was safe. Rizzo scored. The Cubs had a lead. When Javy Baez followed with a two-run double on a misplaced curveball, the Cubs had the game.

Munoz said the “ball got away” and he “just missed it.”

“It really comes down to one pitch,” Gomber said. “Honestly I thought I got some soft contact in the inning, made some good pitches to the guys I was supposed to get and then just didn’t make a pitch to the one guy that is swinging it really well right now. He made me pay.”

All three runs in the inning were unearned, and that left one area of the Cardinals’ improvement pristine for the weekend.

Hours before the start of the Cubs’ three-game visit, the Cardinals recast their bullpen, and by the start of Monday’s game against Colorado they will have cycled through five new relievers. Gomber is a part of the group – moved from a spot starter into a prominent role as a tight-game lefty. He’ll be joined Monday by Chasen Shreve, who the Cardinals acquired from the Yankees. The new-look bullpen successfully closed out wins Friday and Saturday, and in 10 2/3 innings pitched against the Cubs did not allow an earned run.

The bullpen got young, got clearer, and, in three days, got better.

“You’re dealing with guys who are coming in and pitching real offensively, attacking, and getting ahead of hitters, controlling counts,” Shildt said. “You’ve got some guys who clearly have the ability to do it. Ultimately the credit goes to them. They’re getting the outs. I like the look of it. The change has been positive for sure.”

And, yet, the bullpen also finds itself at the team’s tipping point.

The Cardinals have received calls on closer Bud Norris. Colorado and Boston are two teams that have shown interest, sources indicated. Norris has only a one-year deal and the Cardinals have stressed they’re making moves for 2019 at this point, but shedding the veteran and his 20 saves would be a clear signal. Forget musical chairs, moving Norris would stop the music.

The front office advertised, publicly and internally, the 11 games out of the All-Star break as a good time to audit the team for Tuesday’s trade deadline.

Eight games against the Cubs heightened the stretch’s importance.

The Cardinals, true to their record, stayed even.

Zobrist’s homer off Gant (3-4) in the first inning staked the Cubs to a quick lead. Marcell Ozuna answered with a two-out, two-run homer for a lead. Ozuna’s grand slam Sunday ended a monthlong stretch without a homer, and he followed that with his first consecutive games with a home run since mid-June. Rizzo tied the game with a solo homer to dead-center. Four groundballs – three of which didn’t leave the infield – and Baez’s double meant the game and kept the Cardinals from a sweep.

“When you win the series,” Ozuna said, “it’s important.”

What the Cardinals have clung to is that they play teams ahead of them in the standings. While they’ll need to win almost two out of every three to reach 90 wins, they will overtake opponents in the process just because they play so many of them. Of the Cardinals’ final 57 games, 30 are against teams ahead of them in the National League standings. That includes seven games yet against the Rockies, who open a four-game series at Busch on Monday.

The Rockies (57-47) swept Oakland and have won eight of their past 10 to move within a game of the NL West-leading Los Angeles. Colorado has a hold on one of the league’s wild-card berths, and by winning the upcoming series the Cardinals (53-52) can chip the gap between them and Colorado to less than three.

Split the series and the cement of .500 starts to dry.

Lose the series and tricky math becomes front-office calculus.

“You look at things in stretches,” Shildt said. “The 11 games were important, but the next several are important as well. It’s more the body of work. I’m pleased with the body of work, the consistency (with which) we’re doing things. While not perfect, we’re starting to see a consistent brand of baseball. We want to see more consistent results with it.”

Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.