You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.
And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play, the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.
Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.
With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.
He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.
It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.
Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.
The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.
Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.
He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.
And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.
With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.
It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.
Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.
You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.
And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.
But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.
Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.
The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.
The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.
The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.
Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.
Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.
He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.
Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.
He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.
But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.
Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.
And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.
The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.
Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.