By Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
CHICAGO — After many weeks of cajoling their offense into action with bunts, hit-and-runs, steals and all sorts of pushes to spur production, the St. Louis Cardinals ditched the gimmicks and went back to their roots in late innings Saturday.
They just turned to the timely hit.
And they got two of them.
Carlos Beltran homered in the ninth inning to rescue the Cardinals from a second consecutive ignominious loss to the rival Cubs, and Jon Jay doubled in the 10th for a 5-4 victory at Wrigley Field. A day after attempting two bunts to create runs in a small-ball way, this was a decidedly big-ball win. For a lineup that boasts five players with at least 20 home runs, five players with at least 70 RBIs, and was once the leading offense in the land, the late innings felt retro. Manager Mike Matheny, the birthday boy, felt relief.
“Since May it just seems like every game has been like this. We’re sitting on the edge of our seats,” he said. “It builds some character and some fight, no question. But it all comes down to somebody getting the big hit and us beating them to that punch before they get it. It is tough when you see what we have the potential to do. You see the numbers we have.
“It’s just stringing them together.”
The Cardinals won for the sixth time in seven games but not before a dalliance with disaster. For the second consecutive day they held a lead after five innings and lost it. Beltran’s home run in the ninth inning off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol tied the score at 4-4 and forced extra innings. That put the Cardinals on the brink of a fifth walk-off loss at Wrigley this season. Two walks and Jay changed that in the 10th.
Matt Carpenter and Bryan Anderson, both of whom entered the game as pinch-hitters, worked two-out walks from Cubs reliever Jaye Chapman. Anderson, a September call-up, fell behind 1-2 to Chapman before eventually extracting an eight-pitch walk. That brought up Jay with the go-ahead run at second base. Hitless in two previous at-bats with a runner in scoring position, Jay turned on Chapman’s changeup and skipped a double down the right-field line to score Carpenter and give the Cardinals their first lead since the sixth inning.
Jay’s double made a winner of Mitchell Boggs (4-1) and set up closer Jason Motte, who struck out the side in the 10th for his 39th save.
“That two-out hit that we’ve been wanting for a while, there it was,” said Saturday’s starter, Adam Wainwright. “Those one-run games that we’ve really struggled with this year, the difference is either holding the other team from getting a two-out hit or us getting that two-out hit with guys on base. We got that hit. Huge game. If we would have lost that game I don’t think I would have slept at all.”
The win, coupled with losses by all three challengers chasing them, moved the Cardinals to a 21/2-game lead for the National League’s second wild card. The damage done to their standing by botching Friday’s game was erased with Saturday’s events, and two days dropped off the calendar. With Cincinnati having claimed the NL Central title Saturday afternoon, the Cardinals’ only route into the postseason is through the wild card.
The Cardinals (81-71) have 10 games remaining to hold on.
One of Matheny’s charges scrawled a birthday greeting on a markerboard in the clubhouse—“Happy Birthday, No. 22,” it read—but the presents came only after a few surprises. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Pete Kozma’s bases-loaded walk, but they left the bases loaded. Cubs starter Travis Wood had thrown 55 pitches by the end of the second inning, but the Cardinals failed to exploit his gifts.
Wood was gone after five innings, and in the sixth the Cardinals welcomed the bullpen with the first two runners reaching base. Neither scored. The trouble the Cardinals have had capitalizing on such opportunities recently has led Matheny down the path of the bunt and has caused some players to employ it on their own, sometimes force-feeding the offense.
Matheny said such misses “haunt” the team, and they did as Wainwright encountered turbulence in the sixth inning. The Cubs jumped him for three runs and a 4-3 lead. David DeJesus sparked the rally with a leadoff homer, Alfonso Soriano continued it with a ground-rule double, and Dave Sappelt punctuated it with a two-out, RBI single.
“I didn’t make the pitch to stop them,” said Wainwright, who pitched six innings.
The Cubs carried that lead into the ninth and called on Marmol to cement it. Beltran came up with one out and an unsuccessful history against Marmol. He had three strikeouts in four hitless at-bats. On Friday, with one on and no outs in the first inning, Beltran joined the Cardinals’ freelance bunters and dropped one to move Jay over. He did it because “sometimes you win games by playing the little game.” Not this time.
Beltran connected on a 97 mph fastball for his 30th homer and a tie score.
“You’re facing Marmol. It’s no secret,” Beltran said. “You’re going to get a fastball and you’re going to get a slider.”
After his homer, Wainwright was waiting.
What could have been his 14th loss of the season and another regret-filled pothole on the road to the playoffs instead was a win, the Cardinals’ 20th in 46 one-run games. Beltran changed it. Jay finished it.
“Carlos—I kissed him right on the cheek,” Wainwright said. “I’m not afraid to tell the whole world that, either. … He saved me, saved the team.”
Beltran admitted: “He gave me a few kisses. My cheek, for sure. That’s love.”