Anthony Rizzo delivered the Cubs their 10th consecutive victory in fitting fashion for a rivalry game littered with odd occurrences.
The Cubs’ All-Star first baseman drew a walk-off walk against left-hander Zach Duke to earn the Cubs a 4-3 11-inning win over the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday night in front of 40,597 at Wrigley Field. Rizzo worked a 3-1 count against Duke, the former White Sox reliever, before taking a two-seam fastball home plate umpire Ron Kulpa ruled inside for ball four.
Brooks Baseball’s pitch graph showed Duke’s pitch was in the strike zone, for what it’s worth. With Duke’s two-seam action tailing that pitch inside toward Rizzo’s hands — which are already on top of the plate with his crowding batting stance — the pitch may have looked more inside to Kulpa than it actually was.
“It was a good pitch,” Rizzo said. “I thought it was a little in. I’m on top of the plate. I’m looking right there, so I’m probably swinging if it was something close to hit.”
Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t sure if Rizzo’s crowd-the-plate stance contributed to the call, but did allow for the possibility.
“Umpires see things differently,” Maddon said. “He is on the plate and it can be difficult to see sometimes, even for the catcher.”
But the walk-off walk on a close-at-worst pitch was hardly the only strange event on a muggy evening on Clark and Addison.
There was Chris Coghlan trying to call for time, getting quick-pitched by Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez and still lacing a game-tying two-run single into right field in the sixth inning. Thirty-nine-year-old catcher David Ross followed that by laying down a two-out squeeze, with Martinez rushing an off-balance throw that pulled first baseman Matt Carpenter off the bag to put the Cubs temporarily ahead.
Ross picked off Jedd Gyorko, whose slide didn’t come close to reaching the first base bag, for the first out of the seventh, and Coghlan and Addison Russell completed a picturesque relay to nail Carpenter at the plate to end the seventh. Aroldis Chapman retired the Cardinals in order in the ninth on three pitches.
“He gets a steak dinner for that,” Maddon said.
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In the 11th, Mike Montgomery — who last pitched July 31 — loaded the bases when he walked Kolten Wong, who entered Thursday with the lowest OPS (.663) of any Cardinals player with more than 100 plate appearances. But Montgomery then struck out Carpenter, who has the highest OPS of any Cardinals player (.988), despite having to change signs with catcher Willson Contreras during the middle of the at-bat.
“Big situation, you don’t want to do that, but I haven’t thrown to him a lot,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s good to do that and kind of slow it down a little bit.”
And during most of that nearly-disastrous top of the 11th, and throughout the bottom of the 11th, starter John Lackey was warming up in the Cubs’ bullpen, just as he did during that wild comeback win over the Seattle Mariners July 31 that started this 10-game winning streak.
Jon Lester offered his take on the secret to the Cubs’ wild victories of late: “I guess just put Lackey in the bullpen and let him warm up.”
The absurdity of Thursday’s game wound up working out in the Cubs’ favor, pushing them to a 13-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. While St. Louis, which is now a half-game out of a wild card spot, has only managed to tread water recently, the Cubs are doing their best Katie Ledecky impression and putting a seemingly insurmountable gap between themselves and the rest of their divisional challengers.
The Cubs were only 6 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals when they fell behind the Mariners 6-0 after three innings July 31. The low-hanging narrative would be that from that point on, this team has rode a wave of momentum to this winning streak and massive NL Central lead.
But that’s not how Lester views things from he and his teammates’ perch atop the major leagues.
“I don’t feel like we need momentum,” Lester said. “I just feel like we’re a really solid team.”