The brash, young and confident Cubs aren’t settling for less and they don’t mind letting the St. Louis Cardinals know it.
“We want to win the division, and we’re showing emotion and we’re ready to fight for it,’’ rookie third baseman Kris Braynt said. “We don’t want to just settle for a wild card spot. We want it all.”
With a 5-4 victory that got a little hairy at the end after closer Hector Rondon was ejected for hitting Chris Garcia with a pitch to lead off the ninth while protecting a 5-1 lead, the Cubs won their fifth straight game and second in a row over the Cardinals, whose lead in the National League Central over the Cubs was trimmed to five games with 14 to play. A sweep in a series that concludes today, with Jon Lester facing the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez, might just make what seemed a pipe dream a few days ago a reasonable possibility.
The Cardinals, after all, seem to be sputtering a bit with a 7-10 record in September while the Cubs – 37-15 in their last 52 games and sitting at a season high 27 games over .500 — continue to climb.
The difference in these Cubs now and before this hot stretch was demonstrated Saturday, manager Joe Maddon said.
“Early in the year we were not able to hold on against these guys late,’’ Maddon said. “Right now we’re holding on. I said in the beginning of the year they were out-experiencng us and right now we’re catching up in that regard.
“Give them a lot of credit always because they always fight to the last drop and I respect that but our guys came out ready to play today. It was pretty impressive the way we started that game against an impressive pitcher.’’
In a noon start at Wrigley against right-hander Michael Wacha, who entered with a 16-5 record and 2.65 ERA, Bryant doubled in a run and Starlin Castro singled Bryant home for a 2-0 lead in the first inning. After Jorge Soler ripped a Wacha pitch on a line into the left-field seats in the fifth inning, Bryant made it 4-1 with an historic homer, his 25th to tie Hall of Famer Billy Williams’ rookie home run record set in 1961.
“That’s a pretty cool record, a person to be mentioned in the same sentence with, a guy I’ve been able to get to know who’s been rooting us on the whole year,’’ Bryant said, “who’s been in the clubhouse a lot. It’s pretty special.’’
Bryant also hiked his RBI total to 95 and made a couple of strong plays in the field.
“Great defense, wonderful hitting, one of the best baserunners in the National League,’’ Maddon said. “Effort level can’t be better than it is. He is the Rookie of the Year.’’
Bryant said the atmosphere before 40,994 stoked fans in the ninth inning, which ended on shortstop Addison Russell’s diving stop to his left of a ball hit by Stephen Piscotty that appeared headed to center field, was “the best I’ve ever seen in a baseball game.’’
“Both teams competing, and Addison makes the best play I’ve seen given the circumstances, where we’re at in the season,’’ Bryant said. “To sit the bench for eight innings and come in and make a play like that, you just can’t make these things up.’’
Pedro Strop, the eighth Cubs pitcher used on a bullpen day started by Travis Wood, earned his third save after Rondon and Maddon were ejected by plate umpire Bruce Dreckman. Matt Carpenter homered against lefty Zac Rosscup and Yadier Molina made it 5-4 with a sacrifice fly against Strop.
Tommy La Stella’s pinch RBI single that gave the Cubs a 5-1 lead in the sixth turned out to be difference.
“Up and down the lineup just a wonderful day for us,’’ Maddon said. “The bullpen came through. I told [Strop] go to the beach tomorrow if you’d like.’’