As they recovered from an odious early inning for a just-missed-it finish, the Cardinals did enough well Wednesday against the archrival Cubs to have a game play out exactly like they hope their season won’t.
The Cubs, as they have in the standings, rampaged to a quick and swollen lead, dicing starter Carlos Martinez for six runs in the second inning. The Cardinals whittled away. A home run here. A home run there. An unthinkable four runs off the best righthander in baseball and the tying run on base in the fourth, fifth, eighth and ninth innings. The Cardinals did during the game what they aim to do in the division race — chip into the Cubs’ lead – only to find themselves in the ninth where they don’t want to be by October.
The Cubs denied what could have been a defining game for the Cardinals by holding on for a 9-8 victory at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals peppered Cubs ace Jake Arrieta like no team had in almost a year and put the winning run on base with no outs in the ninth. Cubs closer Hector Rondon retired the final three batters, two by strikeout, to secure the game and the series for the Cubs while inflating their division lead to eight games.
“I thought that was a game we were going to steal,” manager Mike Matheny said.
“Kind of a tough one to swallow,” Matt Adams said. “We came so close.”
The Cardinals slipped to 2-4 this season against the first-place Cubs, and they have yet to visit Wrigley Field for a series. After their exhilarating walk-off victory Monday night, the Cardinals lost the next two games of the series, and in each one the Cubs had a six-run inning against the starting pitcher. In six of the past 13 games, the starter has allowed at least five runs, and before Arrieta (9-0) threw a pitch in the second inning his Cubs had already received a 6-1 lead.
The Cardinals spent Wednesday as they’ve spent the season — overcoming their faulty starting pitching. For the fourth time they scored more than seven runs and lost.
“It’s no secret here. We just can’t keep putting up six-run innings and expect to stay in the game,” Matheny said during one of the tensest postgame news conferences of his time as manager. Usually able to suppress any irritation leaking into his comments, Matheny was seething with short, sharp answers.
“Amazingly we did and the guys stayed with it,” he continued. “Carlos was able to get through a good portion, more than we thought he might. Overall that’s just a lot of ground to cover. … The only frustration is feeling like we had it or that we were going to get it and not finishing it off. That’s the frustration.”
Ben Zobrist opened the second inning with the first of his four times on base, and he capped the second inning with a two-run single. In between, the Cubs needled Martinez (4-5) with four other hits and accepted two walks. Jason Heyward broke the inning open with a two-run double down the first-base line that put Cubs ahead 4-1. Zobrist’s second hit of the inning pushed the lead to five runs, or essentially insurmountable against Arrieta at his best.
“I picked a good day to be (crummy),” the Cy Young Award winner said.
Arrieta recently pitched 21 consecutive quality starts, the longest streak since Bob Gibson from 1967 to ’68. He has won 20 consecutive decisions, and he allowed a total of four runs in April. The last time Arrieta allowed four runs in a start was June 16, 2015. Since, teams have been trying to make Arrieta human again.
The Cardinals had four runs on Arrieta by the end of the fourth inning. The second run came on a solo homer by Randal Grichuk — the first homer Arrieta had allowed in 51 regular-season innings. In the fourth inning, the Cardinals had their chance to upend Arrieta with the go-ahead run at the plate. Stephen Piscotty opened the inning with a walk and then scored from first on Adams’ double into the right-field corner. Grichuk saw three consecutive sinkers from Arrieta and, on an 0-2 count, poked the third to right to cleave the Cubs’ lead to 6-4.
With Grichuk and Martinez on base and Arrieta off balance, leadoff hitter Kolten Wong had a chance to chomp into the lead.
Arrieta fell behind 3-0.
Wong flied out on the next pitch.
Matheny was asked if Wong had his OK to attack the 3-0 out pitch, and the manager said, tersely: “He swung.”
The dugout gave Wong that OK.
“I’m looking for something to drive. You saw my swing – it wasn’t a base-hit swing,” Wong explained. “Mike gave me the green light and I was ready. … In that situation, with momentum, it’s a good time to punch them in the mouth. I got a good pitch to hit and just missed it.”
In the fifth inning, Grichuk pulled a hard grounder down the third base line that would have at least tied the game had Tommy La Stella not smothered it and found an out to end the inning. The rivals exchanged three-run homers in the sixth inning — first by Kris Bryant, then by Matt Holliday — and in the ninth the Cardinals opened with singles off Rondon. Piscotty reached base for the fourth time, leading off the inning. Adams followed with his third hit. Yadier Molina attempted a bunt to avoid the double play but punched it foul.
Rondon struck out Molina and Grichuk without either runner budging.
A ground ball back to Rondon ended the game.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon saw some of the season writ small in the game suggesting that the Cardinals are “going to be there at the end. … They play hard every second of the game.” He then diagnosed how “they need to get their pitching straightened out.” The Cardinals played well enough and scored enough Wednesday to overcome a lot — just not the two things that they’ll have to overcome to make the most of this season: their starting pitching and those Cubs.
“I think we still made a statement,” Wong said. “That’s just the team we are. We’re not going to be done until the final out is made. We battled and battled and unfortunately fell a little short.”