Since the National League Central Division came into being 25 years ago, the Cardinals have owned it, winning 10 championships outright and tying for another. No other team has won more than five.
On Friday night at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals had a chance to put down some earnest money on another one. With the Milwaukee Brewers being pummeled by Colorado, the Cardinals missed a chance to nail down at least a tie for their division title. The Cardinals’ bullpen and offense both faltered, however, as in four hours and four minutes of their lives they won’t ever get back, the Cardinals were drubbed 8-2 by a reserve-laden Chicago Cubs team that entered the game tapped out, having lost nine consecutive contests.
A portion of the sellout paid crowd of 46,530 even took to booing the bullpen, which allowed all the Cubs’ runs. That included a seven-spot in the seventh off Andrew Miller and Ryan Helsley. Cardinals relievers, bastions nearly all season for the club, have given up 15 runs over their last nine innings covering two games.
But the magic number for clinching the division dropped to two as the Cardinals maintained a one-game lead over Milwaukee with two to play. The Cardinals and Brewers lost for the first time on the same day since Aug. 4.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, asked if the loss was a little more palatable with the Brewers losing, said, “I imagine that’s accurate. Clearly, we want to take care of our own business but it makes it a little softer.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, his team, which hadn’t won since Sept. 16 “played really well in a playoff atmosphere. I was proud of our guys.”
Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner, took over the National League in walks at 86 when he passed five (one intentionally), but he also had a career-high 10 strikeouts in five scoreless innings which required 97 pitches.
Tommy Edman had his sixth consecutive multi-hit game, piling up three more to sail over the .300 mark at .305.
Matt Carpenter cracked another go-ahead homer against the Cubs.
But Robel Garcia’s three-run homer off Helsley highlighted the seventh inning which began with a walk by Miller, which was the seventh pass of the night by Cardinals pitching. Miller, who clinched a playoff berth last Sunday with a save in Chicago, also hit a batter as four of the five men he faced came in to score. Helsley allowed four of the five men he faced to hit safely, with three of them scoring.
“We had it all lined up,” said Shildt, referring to how he planned his bullpen usage over the last four innings, with closer Carlos Martinez appearing in the eighth.
“Gio (Gallegos), Miller, Helsley. . . . We’ll run them back out there and have complete confidence in them,” said Shildt. “We had it lined up the way we wanted, trying to bring home a one-run game.
“That (seventh inning) had a few bloops,” said Shildt, “but we didn’t help ourselves either with the walk and the hit batter.”
The veteran Miller said, “Leadoff walks. Just unacceptable. I don’t know what the numbers are but I haven’t been walking guys lately. Success seems to follow that.
“(If Ben) Zobrist doesn’t walk, that ball doesn’t fall — the flare from (Willson) Contreras — and, yeah, I think that sets up the whole inning. I didn’t feel bad throwing the ball.
“Things snowballed from the blooper. Overall bad job. Can’t do it. It was a matter of getting the first guy out. I didn’t do that.”
The Cardinals got a second look at Cubs rookie Alec Mills, who blanked them on two hits over 4 2/3 innings last Friday and they didn’t do a whole lot better this time, striking out nine times in Mills’ five innings. Mills did have a large assist from center fielder Albert Almora Jr., before the latter suffered leg cramps and had to exit. Almora Jr. took away both a two-run double in the first and a solo home run in the fourth, both depriving Yadier Molina, who had two singles later.
The home run saver particularly was impressive.
“That’s as good as you are going to get over a wall,” Maddon said. “Period.”
“Clearly, the guy’s a really good defensive player,” said Shildt, “and he made an impact.”
Hudson, who didn’t last past three innings and giving up three hits and walking four in his previous start against Chicago, didn’t allow anything Friday. But he said, “Five innings is not really what you shoot for as a starter, so they got me out of there.”
“Besides the few walks that I had, I felt like today was the most ahead of batters I’ve been all year. I was able to see some differences in swings because of that.”
Carpenter’s 14th homer provided the first run of the game, in the fourth. Carpenter has hit safely in eight of his last 10 starts and is batting .348 against the Cubs this season.
“The old saying (is), ‘you can’t keep a good man down,” Shildt said. “That’s a talented guy, right there. To see him take good at-bats is not a surprise.”
Edman legged out a single to short right in the fifth for his third hit of the Cardinals’ total of five at that point. He also stole his 15th base but Paul Goldschmidt was called out on strikes and
Marcell Ozuna, 12 for 100 at that point (he had two singles later), struck out swinging.
Gallegos served up a first-pitch homer to Ian Happ in the sixth to tie the game. But the Busch crowd got excited again when the Rockies tallied seven runs in the sixth inning to go ahead of the Brewers.
The Cardinals stranded 13 runners. Their regular lineup, counting the 19-inning game at Arizona earlier in the week, has scored four runs over 27 innings.
The prize, yet another division title still is at hand. But one inning, or even one batter, can have a big impact now.
“That’s baseball this time of year,” Miller said. “These aren’t playoff games but these are close as you can get without being there. It doesn’t take much for you to think you’re on top of the world or you’re never going to crawl out of a hole.
“It does change pretty quick, and you’ve got to be ready for it. You’ve got to trust if you are down in that hole, that spark can happen, and you can, in the blink of an eye. be back where you want to be.
“It’s frustrating. I didn’t do my job today. Be ready to go (Saturday).”
Shildt said, “I’m excited. I can’t wait to play tomorrow. I probably won’t speak for everybody, but I’m ready to go play right now.”