Just when it looked like the drama this season was over for the Cubs, along came the Cardinals.
And 11 innings later, the Cubs had their third walkoff victory in their last seven home games, their 10th victory in a row overall and their 13th in 14 games.
The 4-3 victory – on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out bases-loaded walk against Zach Duke – boosted the biggest division lead in baseball to a season-high 13 games.
Don’t try to tell the Cubs there’s no drama left in this season.
“Especially against the Cardinals,” Rizzo said. “Emotions are a little higher. We battle. That’s kind of our identity.”
Until this walkoff-fueled winning streak, the Cubs had one walkoff all year. These days they don’t even have to swing the bat to get one.
“We have a walkoff walk, a walkoff wild pitch [Aug. 3], and one on a bunt by a pitcher [July 31],” Rizzo said. “It’s going our way. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
How do they keep pulling these off?
“I guess just put Lack in the bullpen at the end,” said Thursday’s starter Jon Lester of John Lackey, the starting pitcher who was warming up in the 11th just before the game-winner scored – 12 days after he was doing the same thing when that game-winner scored in the 12th.
“It’s just a sign of a good team. The close games we grind out,” he said. “That’s definitely not the game I thought was going to happen tonight with the wind blowing out.”
The Cubs fell behind 2-0, came back to take the lead with a three-run sixth, then watched pinch-hitter Randal Grichuk tie it in the seventh with a homer off Travis Wood.
Then came the drama – which included a big blow to Matt Holliday’s right hand and the Cardinals’ playoff chances in the 10th, when Mike Montgomery hit the Cards’ slugger with a pitch.
X-rays revealed a broken thumb.
“That’s awful,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I felt horribly about that. We all did. He’s a very important player on their team.”
“You never want to see that,” Rizzo said. “We wish Matt well.”
As for the rivalry, it may not have looked like it had much juice in it going into the game.
“This should bring out the best in everybody – them and us,” Maddon said before Thursday’s opener of a four-game series between the century-long rivals. “If you can’t get up for playing these particular games, then just do something else.”
As quickly as the sentiment might have been dismissed, a raucous, full-house crowd at Wrigley Field and the guys in uniform re-enacted the urgency and energy that filled the place during the Cubs’ playoff-series win over the Cardinals last October.
On an 87-degree night, the Cubs and Cards turned up the heat on a game that went from a pitching duel to a late-inning fight.
“There’s no animosity. I think it’s called respect,” Maddon said of the rival emotions. “A lot of respect from us to them, from me to them, based on a tremendous tradition that they’ve built up.”
By the time Chris Coghlan tied the game after calling timeout – only to not get the timeout, then step back in and quickly swing for a two-run single – the drama was back in the rivalry, if not the division race.
The whole scene, all night, was almost enough to make anyone watching forget the Cubs have nearly lapped the National League Central field with seven weeks to play.
“Yeah, I am surprised that there is that kind of a gap,” Maddon said. “Absolutely surprised.
“But I’m not taking anything for granted.”