Cardinals beat Cubs 2-1 to open key showdown series for first in NL Central

Paul Goldschmidt’s sixth-inning homer off Yu Darvish was the difference in the opener of the three-game series.

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Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals

Yu Darvish struck out nine with no walks in his six-inning start Tuesday. In four starts since the All-Star break, he has a 2.25 ERA, 30 strikeouts and just two walks in 24 innings.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

ST. LOUIS — Buckle up.

Unless the Cubs come up with vintage Rickey Henderson by Wednesday afternoon’s trade deadline — or the Cardinals re-acquire Albert Pujols in his prime — get ready for more of the same in the wild National League Central race.

As right fielder Jason Heyward said after the Cubs’ 2-1 loss to the Cardinals in Tuesday’s showdown for first place, “This is real.”

If this is real, then reality bites for the Cubs in 2019.

And it might have gotten a little more real late Tuesday when the fourth-place Reds acquired 2018 All-Star starter Trevor Bauer from the Indians in a three-team trade.

The Reds then got into a punch-throwing, lip-splitting brawl with division-rival Pittsburgh. Even Yasiel Puig, one of the players headed to Cleveland, was in the middle of the brawl.

For those just tuning in, welcome to the 2019 NL Central.

For the Cubs, the loss Tuesday wasn’t just about knocking them from a first-place tie with the Cardinals. It was about the same game — the same result — playing out yet again on the road.

The Cubs have the worst road record in the National League, including 21 losses in their last 29 road games and five of seven during this nine-game trip.

Twelve of the road losses have been by one run, including four on this trip, plus a two-run walk-off Saturday in Milwaukee.

The Cubs have stopped trying to explain the disparity between their road record and their home mark, which is second best in the NL.

Regardless, with 56 games left, it’s hard to imagine anybody pulling away in the division — least of all the Cubs.

“You can’t sit here and hang your hat on looking for separation necessarily,” Heyward said. “That’s not the kind of division it is.”

Heyward had half of the team’s six hits and scored the only run on this night as the Cubs lost for the fourth time in four games at Busch Stadium this year.

On the other hand, the Cubs are 6-0 against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Go figure.

Or, better yet, don’t bother.

Manager Joe Maddon, who continues to look for a more balanced, consistent hitting attack, said before the game he sees the race staying this close for most, if not the rest of the season.

After the game: “I’m not backing off that,” he said.

But somebody has to pull away, right?

“You can keep searching for that all you want, but in 2015 that didn’t happen,” Heyward said of the year the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs finished within three games of each other and all made the playoffs. The Cubs and Brewers played a tiebreaker and both made the playoffs last year.

In fact, the Central has had the closest finish of the NL divisions in five of the last six years.

“History’s repeating itself,” Heyward said.

Just this year alone, it’s on a lather-rinse-repeat cycle for the Cubs, who have led all 16 games they’ve played since the All-Star break. But adding to the leads and holding them have proved the hard part as they’ve dropped to 9-7 in that stretch.

Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who surrendered the early lead on two singles and a pair of wild pitches in the bottom of the fourth, gave up the go-ahead run on Paul Goldschmidt’s one-out homer to left in the sixth inning.

“He’s a monster,” Darvish said of the reigning NL Player of the Week.

Darvish was sharp again for six innings. He has a 2.25 ERA in his four starts since the break with 30 strikeouts and only two walks in 24 innings.

“He was really outstanding,” Maddon said. “We have to become more consistent on the offensive side of the ball, and I’ve been talking that for two months now, maybe. Nothing new.”

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