CHICAGO — All that stands between the Cardinals this weekend and strengthening their hold on first place in the National League Central is their allergic reaction in recent years to the ivy-strewn confines of Wrigley Field.
Adam Wainwright suggested a salve.
“Well, this park can be kind of crazy with the wind and whatnot,” said Wainwright, who has 11 wins in 27 games at the Cubs’ ballpark. “Very similar to Coors Field in that regard. There are things physically that you cannot control. I can’t control which way the wind is blowing. I can’t control if the air is thick or thin. What I can control is getting mishits and keeping the ball on the ground. It doesn’t matter if the wind is blowing straight in or straight out, if the ball is on the ground it’s not leaving the yard.
“In these conditions you can give up a 500-foot out or you can give up a 200-foot homer, you know?” he continued. “The best way here is to simplify.”
Simply, Wrigley has been a roadblock to October for the Cardinals.
The first-place Cardinals arrived Thursday for the four-games series against the Cubs without a win in their previous six visits. The losing streak is the longest to start a season in Chicago since before Wrigley was built; the Cardinals lost eight consecutive to the Cubs at the West Side Grounds in 1907. But it’s not just this year. The Cardinals can trace their absence from the postseason straight to the corner of Clark and Addison. The Cardinals finished nine games behind the Cubs in 2017, a year they went 1-8 at Wrigley. In the previous two seasons, the Cardinals have finished a combined 16 games behind the Cubs for a playoff berth, and they have gone 5-15 at Wrigley.
Since the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, they’ve gone 269-208 in the regular season, and the Cardinals have been on their heels, at 256-220.
The difference? A 5-20 record at Wrigley in that same span.
“There’s a lot of stimulation in this place,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s a great environment. They feed off that energy here. Candidly, I know the last three, four years have not been great (for the Cardinals). We can’t overreact to that.”
The Cardinals’ 2019 visits to Wrigley began with Kyle Hendricks throwing an 81-pitch shutout against them in May. The ways the Cardinals found to lose at Wrigley would expand to include a couple all-out routs, one game won by a grand slam hit by a lifelong farmhand, and another the Cardinals led 4-0 only to lose 9-4. Entering Thursday, the Cardinals had been outscored by 24 runs in six games at Wrigley, and only two of the games were decided by three or fewer runs. The Cubs have an NL-best 10 grand slams this season, and two of them were hit during the Cardinals first series at Wrigley.
The balm for such blasts, as Wainwright suggested, is to keep things grounded.
Only three teams in baseball have more wins at home than the Cubs’ 51 entering the weekend. The Cardinals, with 49, will have a chance to be the sixth team to reach 50 home wins – when they host the Cubs next weekend to close the regular season.
“We have had games won here and let them slip away,” Wainwright said. “How have we done against them at home? We’ve won those series. So, we’ve traded slug shots. Now we’ve got to go out and play to win.”
RIZZO SHOCKER LEADS CUBS RETURNS
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo went from possibly done for the season to back in the lineup in less time than it took him to take a scooter across Waveland Avenue. Shortly before the national anthem, Rizzo emerged from the Cubs’ dugout, his blue socks tugged up high, and started going through running drills, testing his injured right ankle. The socks should have been a giveaway.
Four days after he sprained his ankle, three days after the Cubs said he would be in a protective boot during the Cardinals series, and 20 minutes before first pitch, Rizzo was back in the lineup, batting leadoff.
He homered in his second at-bat to tie the game, 1-1.
Rizzo’s return was the most dramatic of a series of moves the Cubs made before Thursday’s game to fortify a roster that had been eroded by injury. The Cubs activated closer Craig Kimbrel (elbow) from the injured list and brought back embattled infielder Addison Russell from concussion protocols. The Cubs also revealed that shortstop Javier Baez (fractured thumb) could participate in this series as a pinch-runner with a protective glove that manager Joe Maddon referred to repeatedly as “an oven mitt.”
All of the additions almost masked one significant subtraction from the series. Lefty Cole Hamels, who was scheduled to pitch against the Cardinals twice in the closing week of the regular season, has been scratched from Saturday’s planned start. Hamels has been dealing with fatigue and soreness in his left shoulder. Alec Mills, a 27-year-old righthander who had a 5.11 ERA in 19 games at Class AAA this season, will start in Hamels’ place. He has a 3.42 ERA in 6 1/3 innings for the Cubs – most of which has come as a reliever.
CATCHING UP, ETC.
Joe Hudson, who was added to the 40-man roster to give the Cardinals’ three available catchers in September, will remain with the team for the remainder of the season despite the return of Matt Wieters. The Cardinals want to have Wieters available to pinch-hit – he and Matt Carpenter are the only lefthanded bats off the bench – and Hudson’s presence would allow rookie Andrew Knizner to be used as a pinch-hitter as well, if needed. … Yadier Molina’s start at catcher Thursday moved him past Brad Ausmus’ 1,938 and into seventh all-time by himself. Molina will fall shy this season of tying Tony Pena at 1,950 appearances at catcher, the sixth-most. … Molina is two doubles away from surpassing Jorge Posada (379) for ninth all-time for everyday catchers, and with extra-base hits he’ll have 544 to move into the Cardinals’ top 10.