ST. LOUIS — This ended the media-driven hypothetical question about whether the Cubs and their fans would rather see the team clinch in front of their rivals — and force the St. Louis Cardinals to watch part of the celebration and clean up the clubhouse mess afterward — or end the division race at Wrigley Field.
“I don’t think (anyone) cares,” outfielder Dexter Fowler said after Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at Busch Stadium. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”
The magic number is still stuck at three, meaning the eventual party will now shift to Wrigleyville, where the earliest the Cubs could wrap up a National League Central title would be Thursday night against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Assuming Jon Lester — the big-game pitcher the Cubs invested $155 million in, selling the lefty on the idea he could be on the mound for a historic World Series win — beats the Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon at the end of this three-city road trip.
“I don’t want this to sound bad, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Lester said. “The Cardinals won 100 games last year. No matter what you do during the season — it’s nice, it’s fun, it’s the process and you go through it — but what matters here is another month. That’s where we put our handprint on a season and (show) what this team really is capable of doing.
“We’re having a great time. We’re playing really good baseball. But what this team is going to be remembered for is next month.”
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This initially looked like last year’s playoffs, the Cubs knocking out Jaime Garcia with the Cardinals already down 2-0 and the bases loaded in the second inning. But Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — bailed out Garcia by striking out Kris Bryant swinging to end the threat.
Reyes — an effectively wild and supremely talented rookie — allowed only one hit while giving up six walks across 4 1/3 scoreless innings. Overall, the Cubs (92-52) wasted Fowler’s leadoff home run to begin the game, going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving 10 men on base.
The Cardinals (76-68) are still battling for a wild-card spot. Jason Hammel (14-9, 3.60 ERA) held a powerful lineup in check for stretches (nine strikeouts), but got burned with two pitches. Aledmys Diaz answered with a momentum-shifting, two-run homer into the left-field seats in the second inning. And Brandon Moss launched the go-ahead, two-run homer over the right-field wall with two outs in the sixth inning.
“Yeah, we had our opportunities,” Hammel said, “but the game is not going to wait up and give you any breaks. Move on to tomorrow.”
There is just enough institutional memory and bad blood between these two franchises — and general Cardinal Way fatigue and embrace-the-target resentment toward the Cubs around baseball — that it would have been interesting to see what a clinch party would have looked like with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop.
“For the guys that were around when they were getting beat up all those years,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said, “it probably means a lot to be (this close to clinching) against this team in St. Louis.
“For those of us that are new to the team, it’s still just (the idea) you have to take care of business in your division to be able to win the division. Yeah, it would be nice, but I think if we do it at home, that would be nice, too.”
Fowler shrugged his way through a short postgame interview at his locker and said: “It’s inevitable at this point.”