ST. LOUIS – The Cubs have won more one-run games (18) than anyone else in the majors this year. They won the season series against the Washington Nationals, swept the New York Mets in a four-game series, beat the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke on back-to-back nights, and haven’t lost a series to the Pirates in three tries.
But send them to St. Louis, and you send their mojo packing.
A 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Cardinals on Friday night only served to underscore a season-long trend of oddities, blown leads and mind-numbing baseball for the Cubs.
Despite seven strong innings from starter Jake Arrieta, despite throwing out runners at the plate in each of the first two innings, despite earning their first lead of the game on Kris Bryant’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning, the Cubs fell short again at Busch Stadium against their first-place rivals.
“This is tough loss. This one stings,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who still felt the very real sting on his right arm, which was wrapped in ice where Cards starter John Lackey hit him with a pitch in the third inning. “Yeah, he got me good. But it’s a bruise. So whatever.”
The pain for the Cubs is measured in numbers like these:
They out-hit the Cardinals 12-6 but went just 1-for-9 with men in scoring position, stranding 12 on base. And despite leading in four of five games at Busch Stadium this season, they’ve lost all but once in this ballpark this season.
“We’ve got to win these games,” Rizzo said. “These are important, crucial games to gain ground and stay in the race with them. But there’s nothing we can do [afterward]. Turn the page and get ready to play tomorrow.”
In a place the Cubs already had blown a 5-0 lead in a game they lost by a run in May and a 4-1 lead in a game they lost by three the next day, Arrieta handed off a 2-1 lead in the eighth to a Cubs bullpen that had a major-league-best 1.45 ERA since May 23.
Five pitches later, rookie Greg Garcia tied it with his first career home run, a leadoff shot over the center-field wall off Pedro Strop.
Then with Justin Grimm on the mound in the bottom of the 10th, Peter Bourjos led off a double to left, and Kolten Wong grounded into what looked like an out – until the ball caromed off second base for a hit that put runners at the corners.
Matt Carpenter was then intentionally walked, and Mike Baxter was then brought in from right field as a fifth infielder.
Grimm got the grounder he wanted from Jhonny Peralta, but once it sneaked past the pitcher, Baxter scooped it and threw wide of the plate as the winning run scored – technically, a walk-off E-9.
“It’s something I’m capable of doing,” Baxter, who has first-base experience, said of a play that would have been tough for any of the infielders. “It seems a little bit outside the box, but I’m capable of doing that. I threw it away. I didn’t make the play.”
Regardless, this place is quickly becoming a house of horrors for the newly competitive Cubs – whose third consecutive loss dropped them 9 ½ games behind the National League Central-leading Cardinals.
“We just have to win the games,” said Arrieta, who lowered his ERA to 2.94. “Especially when we’re ahead late like that. We’ve got to win that game.
“Stropy’s been pitching really well. He just scuffled a little bit there. But they’e been lights out. At the end of the day they found a way to get it done and we didn’t. Try to learn from it and come out tomorrow a little better prepared.”
The Cubs had learned enough that manager Joe Maddon played for the low-scoring game from the first inning, playing the infield in with one out and Kolten Wong on third – and getting the grounder that led to the out at the plate.
He did it again in the second after Randal Grichuk’s RBI triple with one out – and got another grounder for another out at the plate.
It made Baxter’s run-scoring single in the fourth a tying hit and gave Bryant a chance to put the Cubs ahead in the seventh. However briefly.
It won’t get any easier the next two days against two of the Cardinals’ top starters, Michael Wacha (9-3, 2.85) and Carlos Martinez (8-3, 2.89).
“We know what the Cardinals are doing. We know that we have to do some things a little big better to trim that lead,” Arrieta said. “At the end of the day it’s about coming out and just trying to win the game that day and not necessarily worrying about too far into the future.
“We have more than enough time to put together some good stretches to kind of minimize that number a little bit. But it starts here.”