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Molina, Martinez nudge Cubs closer to the brink

Molina, Martinez nudge Cubs closer to the brink


CHICAGO — Although lessened by the win his teammates reclaimed despite him, the sting of the ninth lingered overnight for Carlos Martinez and had him working the clubhouse early Friday. He talked his way up the ladder, lobbying for an inning, any inning to clear the palate from Thursday’s sour outing and prove he’s not just the closer they have, he’s the closer they want.

He found Yadier Molina first, to gain an advocate.

He told bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd before, during, and after pregame warmups that he felt strong. He met with manager Mike Shildt to pledge his readiness and maybe oversold his eagerness.

“He came into the clubhouse and said, ‘I’ve got two in me today,’” Shildt recalled. “So, we got him two outs.”

And he got them a win.

Having outlasted, out-weathered, and at times outwitted the Cubs in a four-hour slog that featured 15 different pitchers, all the Cardinals asked of the last one to appear was outs. Molina had provided three of the Cardinals’ four hits and a two-RBI single for all of their runs. A relay of four other relievers had shepherded a one-run game through 4 1/3 scoreless innings and left the ribbon for Martinez to break. A day after he misplaced a three-run lead, Martinez retired two of his three batters in the ninth Friday to secure a 2-1 victory at Wrigley Field and possibly, maybe oust the rival Cubs from the division race.

The first-place Cardinals (87-67) opened a five-game lead on the third-place Cubs (82-72) with only five head-to-head games remaining in the regular season’s final eight days. They trimmed their magic number down to six and have already turned this weekend at Wrigley into a dress rehearsal for how they’ll use their relievers come October. They want Martinez to bring down the curtain.

“I feel that he was made for this stage,” Eversgerd said. “You know what I mean? I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but from the outside looking in, watching him, by the way he goes about it, he loves it. He lives for it.”

To get a lead to Martinez, to get him that inning he requested, it took the Cardinals more patience and persistence than production. The top five hitters in the Cardinals lineup went one-for-16, and the lone hit was a double by Tommy Edman, who started at second and batted second with Kolten Wong (hamstring) injured. The Cubs reordered their rotation to throw righthander Alec Mills against the Cardinals and save lefty Jose Quintana for Saturday. After Mills held the Cardinals to two hits and no runs through 4 2/3 innings, the Cubs just started chucking relievers at the Cardinals.

Three different relievers tried to solve the sixth inning. Edman had five plate appearances and saw four different pitchers. The Cubs used eight of the 14 relievers on their roster in the game and the only one who didn’t retire a batter, St. Louisan David Phelps, took the loss for walking the two batters who scored. With so many relievers coming from so many angles at them, the Cardinals had to rely on their approach more than knowing the pitchers’ stuff.

They waited out nine walks, seven off the bullpen.

“Some of these guys we have experience on and at-bats against, and some of the guys are a little newer to us,” Shildt said. “You know it gets down to these guys take a lot of at-bats. Communicate a little bit as we go. We get better as the game goes, we get better as the series goes, and that’s part of what we talk about. What do you see with this guy? How’s his ball moving? That kind of thing so we can help peel the guy back.”

Phelps, a familiar arm, walked Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to force former Cardinal reliever Steve Cishek into the sixth. He walked Matt Carpenter to bring up Molina. Two innings earlier the Cardinals catcher took a foul ball just below the belt. Buckled over to catch his breath, Molina remained in the game and left his manager describing him as some blend between “warrior and gladiator.” Against Cishek, Molina lashed a groundball up the middle to score two and flip the Cubs’ one-run lead.

That run was the only scar on starter Michael Wacha’s line because he was able to pitch out of several snarls in the early innings. In the third, the Cubs loaded the bases with three singles before Wacha got a double play from Kyle Schwarber to squelch the threat.

Throughout the past few weeks, as the Cardinals have strengthened their hold on a playoff berth, Shildt has offered a sneak preview of the bullpen he intends to have there. Used as a middle-inning flamethrower, rookie Ryan Helsley had a scoreless inning Friday. Asked to retire one lefty with a lead in the sixth, Tyler Webb did so. All of these choices funneling toward the last-inning tandem the Cardinals want to turn leads into wins: Andrew Miller and Martinez.

“You’ve watched Carlos pitch a whole bunch, you’ve seen his stuff, and you see how much life it has,” said John Brebbia, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. “Every outing I feel that he goes out there and it’s just like electric pitch after electric pitch, and when you know you’ve got someone like that sitting in a chair in a bullpen waiting to go into a close game it almost makes the rest of us feel invincible. You have him and Miller and it’s like, ‘Aw man this is great, this is what the back of a championship bullpen looks like.’”

The Cardinals just have to get there, and keep Martinez right there.

In the past seven days, Martinez has been in the hospital with a respiratory attack the team attributed to allergies and asthma. He got his 20th save. He blew a lead to the Cubs. And he reminded them with dazzling stuff why he’s the closer. Martinez considered his week late Friday and explained how “when something happens in my life I try to forget about it and refocus and forget anything negative.” He wanted that second chance at his 22nd save, and what he realized as he got the groundout to end the game was before he started making his case Friday, Shildt wanted to give it to him.

“They believe in me,” Martinez said. “Right now, I’m trying to do my job as closer and I need to show everyone they can believe in me, they can trust in me. And I can then show everybody who I am, what I can do, and what we can win.”

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