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BenFred: Cards reintroduce themselves to Cubs, show why they should not be underestimated in postseason

BenFred: Cards reintroduce themselves to Cubs, show why they should not be underestimated in postseason

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CHICAGO — The longest nine-inning game ever played here at Wrigley Field had turned against the Cardinals so many times, one of their fans decided to switch his allegiance on the fly after he caught one.

A young man in the seats behind the stadium’s ivy-covered left wall was wearing the birds on the bat when he grabbed the Tony Kemp fly that carried and carried until the game’s one-run lead had flipped from one rival to the other.

A stadium employee arrived in the bleachers with a Cubs uniform in hand. You won’t believe what happened next. The Cardinals — no, Cubs — fan swapped tops on the spot, prompting cheers from his new friends.

The Cubs were up again. Wrigley was rocking again. The Cardinals were about to crash the party. Again.

Like the Jay-Z song that blared in the visitors’ clubhouse as it hosted its third consecutive victory celebration, allow the Cardinals to reintroduce themselves.

“When you invest as much as this group invests into what they do every day, and you invest in something being bigger than you, that means you care,” manager Mike Shildt said after Saturday’s 9-8 win. “When you care, it means you fight. That’s what this team does. It cares. And it fights.”

Shildt’s club had weathered everything from game-changing weather, to distraction tactics, to one rather controversial balk.

A rare fumbled start from Dakota Hudson did not derail the Cardinals. Three lost leads did not sap their swagger. Wind and then rain failed to soften their edge.

The heroic return of injured Cubs star Anthony Rizzo in this series and the even more heroic at-bat of injured Cubs star Javier Baez in the game’s final chance became nothing more than shrugged-off story lines, cast aside by the Cardinals like Ben Zobrist’s distracting fidgeting behind the mound during Cardinals’ at-bats.

The Cubs hit three home runs, the last of which was a gut punch delivered one pitch after reliever Giovanny Gallegos was called for a balk on strike three that Kemp failed to hit. And? The Cardinals launched three home runs of their own, the last two from Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on back-to-back fastballs from closer Craig Kimbrel to start the ninth.

“We’re a different team than they (the Cubs) saw earlier this year,” DeJong said. “We’re competing better. We’re playing together as a group better. There is a different hero every day, it seems.”

And that, perhaps more than anything, is why these Cardinals are not a team to underestimate this postseason. Just ask the Cubs.

The Cardinals pitch and defend and run the bases as well as any team out there, and these characteristics help an offense that is unpredictable, at best. But not to be overlooked is a strength that is as important as it is abstract. Every player in a Cardinals uniform is capable of making the big play, and their belief that one will come has only grown stronger by the game.

The Cardinals don’t doubt their uniform. They believe every man wearing one can become a hero.

“To be a good team, you have to have that,” Molina said. “A good team has to be able to win in different ways. We have proven we can be that team.”

For the second time in the past two games, it was the catcher who grabbed the spotlight. The home run he labeled “lucky” because of the wind tied the game for the final time and sucked the sound out of this place. DeJong finished what Molina started. Both were quick, and right, to point the attention elsewhere.

“Team win,” Molina said.

A start that should have been perfect for ground-ball maestro and team wins leader Hudson turned on him as he groped for his command in the first. The Cubs’ three-run lead prompted Shildt to chase offense. The manager lifted Hudson, who had since settled in, for pinch-hitter Rangel Ravelo in the fourth. The rookie’s single scored one and put teammates on second and third, setting up Dexter Fowler’s two-RBI single.

“Big hit,” Shildt said. “That basically led to three runs.”

After Hudson and reliever Dominic Leone combined to allow five earned runs in the first 3 1/3 innings, rookie relievers Junior Fernandez and Genesis Cabrera stopped the bleeding, just like the trio of Tyler Webb, John Gant and Carlos Martinez did after the Cubs later scored against Ryan Helsley and Gallegos. Gant, pitching for the first time in four days after recent struggles, got the win. Martinez, under intense scrutiny after his teammates had to save him from his missed shot at a save Thursday, fired a 99 mph fastball past Baez to cement the victory.

Since shifting to second base and moving up to second in the order to help cover for the absence of injured offensive and defensive catalyst Kolten Wong, rookie Tommy Edman has as many triples and doubles (one of each) as strikeouts (one).

Marcell Ozuna, who had zero hits in his last 18 at-bats when he came to the plate in the sixth, turned a Kyle Ryan curveball into home run No. 29.

Are you seeing the theme?

Three months after the Stanley Cup champion Blues reminded St. Louis what is possible for a team that fights star power with depth and unrelenting selflessness, Shildt’s team is showing similar traits.

They have now won 30 times in their last 42 games, losing consecutive games (no more than two) just twice during this climb.

“We are battling,” said Ozuna. “If I can’t do it, one of my teammates can.”

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