ST. LOUIS — There are times where it feels like the Cubs almost have to play a perfect game to win at Busch Stadium and beat the best team in baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals are in their heads.
Star manager Joe Maddon basically admitted as much late Friday night after watching his team absorb a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals that took 10 innings, ended on a walk-off error and showed the experience gap in this rivalry.
“Give them credit,” Maddon said. “However, we’ve lost several tough games in this ballpark. We have to get over the hump. It’s more of a mental hump than a physical hump.”
The Cardinals (49-24) prey upon mistakes, play with a sense of calm in big moments and get contributions from guys you never heard of before. The Cubs (39-33) wasted seven strong innings from Jake Arrieta, left 12 men on base and wilted in front of another sellout crowd (45,558).
“I believe in our guys,” Maddon said. “I believe our guys can play with these guys. I know their record is better than ours. There’s a long way to go. We’re gonna get it done here.”
The Cardinals got it done with Greg Garcia, a pinch-hitter who hadn’t homered in 61 games at Triple-A Memphis this season and still changed the game with one swing.
Five days after Arrieta threw 122 pitches in a complete-game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, Maddon brought in hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop to protect a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning. Garcia led it off by hammering Strop’s 94 mph fastball 408 feet out toward center field. It just cleared the fence, past the “THIS BUD’S FOR YOU” sign, landing as Garcia’s first career home run in the big leagues.
“We got to win that game,” Arrieta said. “Stropy’s been pitching really well. He just scuffled a little bit there. But they’ve been lights-out. And at the end of the day, they found a way to get it done — and we didn’t.
“Playing a team of their caliber here at Busch Stadium — with a lead late — those are games you have to try and find a way to close out.”
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The defense had bailed out Arrieta in the first and second innings, with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo throwing home on groundballs to prevent two runs for St. Louis. But the Cubs couldn’t make the big play in the 10th.
With no outs, the bases loaded and five defenders positioned across the diamond, Jhonny Peralta hit a groundball to the right side of the infield off Justin Grimm. Mike Baxter — who had made a great catch running over from right field and into foul territory and diving into the seats earlier in the night — had to hurry and threw wide of home plate.
“We got to win these games,” Rizzo said. “These are important, crucial games to gain ground and stay in the race with them.”
The third-place Cubs now trail the Cardinals by 9 1/2 games in the National League Central. For all the confidence and nerve they’ve shown in winning 18 one-run games already this season, the Cubs still have so much left to prove in St. Louis.
“We know what the Cardinals are doing,” Arrieta said. “We know that we have to do some things a little bit better to kind of trim that lead.
“It’s about coming out and just trying to win the game that day and not necessarily worrying about too far into the future. We have more than enough time to put together some good stretches to minimize that number a little bit.
“But it starts here.”