ST. LOUIS – Fireworks went off at Busch Stadium late Monday night, the St. Louis Cardinals rushing from their dugout and forming a mosh pit at home plate, a familiar scene during those long rebuilding years for the Cubs.
Eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs last October changed the feel of the rivalry, and so did stealing John Lackey and Jason Heyward away from a 100-win team, plus all the hype that surrounded Camp Maddon and the best start in baseball.
But there was Randal Grichuk with two outs in the ninth inning against Cubs reliever Adam Warren, blasting a walk-off homer 382 feet over the right-field fence and into the St. Louis bullpen for a 4-3 victory and a reminder that the Cardinals are still the defending division champs.
“It’s a long season,” Lackey said. “They’re a good team. They’ll be fine. We got to worry about ourselves, man. They’re kind of irrelevant. If we play our game, we’ll be OK.”
Grichuk wouldn’t have been in position to get the ice shower during the postgame on-field TV interview if Lackey hadn’t given up a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer to pinch-hitter Matt Adams in the seventh inning, ruining what had been a dominant start to that point.
But the Cardinals (24-21) are known for pouncing on mistakes here, even as a third-place team that hasn’t been playing up to the franchise’s usual standards. After losing three in a row for the first time this season – and eight of their last 12 – the Cubs now have a six-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central.
“We need to play better, 100 percent,” said Lackey, who gave up three runs in seven innings. “But ‘worry’ I think is a strong word. We’re doing OK.”
The Cubs (29-14) had their chance in the ninth inning against St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. With runners on the corners and one out, Anthony Rizzo got jammed on a 97-mph fastball and popped a ball toward third base. Matt Carpenter dove forward and made the catch. With Dexter Fowler already breaking for home plate, Carpenter crawled toward third base and tapped the bag with his glove for the double play.
That symbolized some of the frustration and bad luck for Rizzo, who had pointed to the sky after a broken-bat RBI single off Adam Wainwright in the fifth inning, snapping a 1-for-27 streak and giving the Cubs a 3-1 lead.
This isn’t the same team when Rizzo’s not producing and Heyward’s sidelined and young hitters like Jorge Soler and Addison Russell are still making adjustments.
“We just slowed down a little bit offensively,” said Ben Zobrist, speaking for the rest of the group after a 3-for-4 night extended his streak of reaching base safely in each of his last 29 starts. “We’re just having a harder time squaring the ball up and that’s the way it goes sometimes. We just got to work through it and battle.
“It is frustrating a little bit, but it’s still so early, We weren’t thinking too high of ourselves. We know it’s a long season. We just got to get back to the grind again.”
The Cubs were never going to score eight runs every night and sustain a .700-plus winning percentage for an entire season. If there are signs of frustration, the Cubs kept them hidden inside the visiting clubhouse.
“You try and minimize these spots,” Zobrist said. “We talked about this at the beginning of the season. We knew there was going to be some lulls. We got hot at the beginning and now we’ve gotten cold the last couple weeks. So we have to find the middle ground and get back to playing good baseball.”
Of course, manager Joe Maddon played it cool inside his office while talking with reporters, projecting calm for the cameras. There are no trades for hitters to be made overnight and Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, either. But the Cardinals are still coming and the Cubs will have to ride this out.
“As long as they come ready to play every day, I know we’ll get back on another good run,” Maddon said. “And then eventually this will be a thing of the past. It’s inevitable.”