Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward has only missed the playoffs twice in nine seasons with three teams, and the misses are vivid.
“Yeah, 2014,” he said of the last time he wasn’t in the postseason. “I think I’ve only played a week and a half of games in my career where we weren’t playing for anything, where I knew my team was eliminated. And that’s awesome to be able to say.”
His mantra in moments like this for the Cubs: “Go out there and have fun. If you win, you win. If not, we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Sure. That’s easy to say for a guy who always makes the playoffs.
“Yeah, but the guy that’s saying it always makes the playoffs,” Heyward said on a day the Cubs pulled out all the stops — employing all forms of drama — in the opener of a potential season-defining series against the Cardinals.
The task has never looked more difficult this late in the season for any of Heyward’s four tries as a Cub, even after Heyward drove in the tying run to cap a three-run rally in the ninth — before Matt Carpenter homered in the 10th to beat the Cubs 5-4.
Not even Anthony Rizzo’s hobbling-hero return to the lineup — replete with a game-tying home run — or the long-anticipated return of closer Craig Kimbrel from a sore elbow could push the Cubs past the first-place Cardinals in a rare late-September meeting that held playoff implications for both.
In fact, it was Kimbrel who gave up the one-out homer to Carpenter that dropped the Cubs four games behind the division leaders with nine to play.
Combined with the Brewers’ victory earlier Thursday, it also knocked the Cubs a game behind second-place Milwaukee for the final National League playoff spot.
“It’s frustrating,” said Kimbrel, who said he felt fine physically and had no issues with rust. “I was very disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that. Tonight was a big game for us. We really needed it. The season’s not over. We’ve still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would have helped.”
The Cubs have six games left against the Cardinals, including the last three of the season in St. Louis.
Until then, a team looking for its fifth consecutive playoff appearance tries to keep an upbeat outlook as it sends fill-in starter Alec Mills to the mound Friday as part of a rotation shuffle created by Cole Hamels’ “shoulder fatigue.”
“It’s definitely a different position than we’re used to these last couple of years, but let’s write our own story,” said Kris Bryant, the victim of two of starter Jack Flaherty’s eight strikeouts in Flaherty’s dominant eight-inning performance for the Cards.
“We can make this a really cool story if we take advantage of this series and the rest of the games we have against the Cardinals as well as against the Pirates,” said Bryant, who also singled and scored during the ninth-inning rally.
The best the Cubs could do for a cool story on this night involved the surprising 11th-hour return to the lineup of Rizzo — just four days after he suffered an ankle injury that was said to require at least a week immobilized in a walking boot.
When he homered to tie the game in the bottom of the third, the storybook ending appeared well underway.
“It’s tough to swallow,” said Rizzo, who left the game after six innings as part of his injury management and hopes to play again Friday. “It’s a big weekend for us. We have to win games.
“This is the first time in a long time that us and the Cardinals have played this late, this meaningful. We know that. And we know the Brewers’ [relatively soft] schedule here on out and ours here on out. We’ve got to find a way to win against the team that’s in first place.”
Flaherty’s ERA in his last 14 starts actually went up — to 1.07 — with his three-hit effort that included only two singles after Rizzo’s homer in the third as the Cardinals took a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning.
“I think he’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Bryant said.
The Cubs’ rally against Carlos Martinez in the ninth included a pinch-running appearance by Javy Baez, who scored the tying run in his first action since suffering a hairline fracture in his left thumb on a slide into second base on Sept. 1.
Baez, who was declared out for the regular season when an MRI exam revealed the fracture, is nowhere near being cleared to start. He has begun hitting off a tee but hasn’t been able to resume fielding or playing catch because of the discomfort.
The Cardinals improved to 28-12 since Aug. 9 — the most victories in the majors in that span.
The Cubs hadn’t seen the Cardinals since more than a week before that and hadn’t played them at home since earning a second home series sweep in as many tries against them in June.
It was the Cardinals’ first victory at Wrigley Field this year.
“This is a different team that we’re bringing in than some of those other teams [we’ve had] coming in here,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “I feel good about what we’re bringing. I think we’ve grown; there’s no question. This team has gotten better as the season’s gone on. That’s what we do.”