Each game of the final week-and-a-half of the season holds enormous ramifications for the National League playoff race.
The Cubs missed a golden opportunity to make up more ground in the hunt for October against the Reds, losing both Tuesday and Wednesday night. However, they still woke up Thursday morning in control of their own destiny with seven of their final 10 games coming against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.
That still wasn't enough to jumpstart the Cubs, as they lost 5-4 to the Cardinals in 10 innings Thursday evening to fall 4 games back in the NL Central with only nine games remaining.
The Cubs have now lost three straight games at Wrigley Field, where they've typically been lights-out this season. It was only the second time all season they lost three games in a row at home.
This also marks the first time the Cubs are out of a playoff spot of any kind since April 30.
—That one hurts. Big time.
The Cubs offense couldn't do much against Jack Flaherty all night, but broke through with a wild rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and send it into extra innings.
The 3-run inning had Wrigley rocking as 39,524 fans were on Cloud 9, thinking they were on the verge of the biggest win of the season.
Then Matt Carpenter happened.
He drilled the first pitch he saw from Craig Kimbrel into the center field bleachers for a go-ahead homer and an absolutely devastating gut punch to the Cubs.
—It was a story ripped right from Hollywood — Anthony Rizzo returning from a badly sprained right ankle to enter the starting lineup just 20 minutes before first pitch.
Rizzo was wearing a huge boot on his right foot and had to use a scooter to get around Wrigley Field for a couple days, yet was out in left field Thursday evening in full uniform, running and jumping around on his ankle.
Oh yeah, and he also homered, tying the game with a blast into the left-field bleachers in his second at-bat.
Somehow, all that wasn't enough to spark his teammates until the ninth inning. Rizzo eventually left the game in the sixth inning after his third at-bat, with Ian Happ taking over at first. It remains to be seen if Rizzo will be able to play at all the rest of this series, but the Cubs lineup certainly needs him.
"Yeah, it's tough to swallow," Rizzo said. "This is a big weekend for us. We gotta win. We have to win games. Fell short today, but gotta bounce back tomorrow and play a good baseball game."
—This is the first time the Cardinals have won a game at Wrigley Field since Sept. 29 of last season. They were swept in both of their previous trips to "The Friendly Confines" this season.
It's also the worst start Kyle Hendricks has had against the Redbirds in more than two years:
The four ER charged to Hendricks tonight are the most he’s allowed to the #stlcards since a 7-6 Cubs win on June 4, 2017.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) September 20, 2019
Hendricks entered the game with the best home ERA in baseball and had allowed only 1 run and 19 baserunners in 23 innings against the Cardinals this season, but wound up charged with all 4 runs on 8 hits in 5.1 innings.
The Cubs felt really good about their chances to start this series off on the right foot behind their home ace, even with Flaherty going on the other side.
But things don't always play out according to plan, which might as well be the tagline for the 2019 Cubs season.
—Flaherty is a legit stud and going to be a serious problem for the Cubs over the next few seasons.
He's been on a Jake Arrieta circa 2015 run since the All-Star Break, entering play Thursday with a 1.05 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 77.1 second-half innings. He continued that trend by allowing only 3 hits and a run in 8 strong innings, striking out 8 Cubs.
The Brewers beat the Padres 5-1 in Milwaukee, so they leapfrog the Cubs for the second Wild-Card spot.
They welcome the hapless Pirates into town Friday and get to finish their season playing another pair of teams with losing records (Reds, Rockies) on the road.
Washington did not play Thursday, so the Brewers moved to 1 game behind the Nationals for the top Wild-Card spot. The Cubs are now 2 games behind the Nationals.
One of the saving graces for the Cubs is the fact that they have a tough remaining schedule — five against the Phillies (including a doubleheader next Tuesday) and three against the Indians to end the season.
But the Nats do get to head to Miami this weekend to take on the Marlins, owners of the worst record in the NL.
The Cubs and Cardinals have a quick turnaround as they play again Friday afternoon at 1:20. It'll be Alec Mills pitching for the Cubs against St. Louis' Michael Wacha.
The Cubs still have life left in this season, but they are now out of a playoff spot for the first time in months and need to turn things around in a hurry. They essentially have to win each of the next three games at Wrigley this weekend to even have a shot at chasing down the Cardinals in the division.