Cardinals vs. Cubs: Was It A Baseball Game, Or A Night At The Opera?

On a crazy and eventful Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals spent the evening pushing the Cubs down, giving the Cubs hope, pushing them down, giving them hope, and finally knocking the Cubbies out 5-4 on Matt Carpenter’s solo homer in the top of the 10th, a blast accompanied by a clean, three-batter save from Giovanny Gallegos in the bottom half of the inning.

The Cardinals packed the bases with runners early in the game against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks but failed to break the game open until the sixth. Then after cruising behind their own brilliant ace starter, Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth and promptly lost it, with tottering closer Carlos Martinez giving up three runs in a helter-skelter sequence.

Just when you thought that the Cubs owned all of the momentum and positive emotion and cranked-up energy, just when you thought the Cubs would win the night on a stunning comeback, Carpenter reset the stars, and put the baseball planets back in alignment.

I don’t know if this was Thursday night baseball or a Night at the Opera.

Acting … drama … plot twists … overwrought scripts.

The miracle return of Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo from a sprained ankle generated an overkill amount of hype, Willis Reed analogies, Kirk Gibson flashbacks, and had the media swooning and sweating to crank out the 100 percent predictable narratives about the triumph of the human spirit, and a profile in courage. By the time I finished monitoring the pregame blathering coming out of the Windy City, I was under the impression that this act of incredible valor followed a horrific, tragic sequence of misfortune, with Rizzo competing on a leg that had been shattered by a live grenade, then torn to shreds by a pack of violent wolverines that invaded Wrigleyville in a snarling, bloodthirsty rampage.

Actually, it was just an ankle sprain.

You know, you put ice on it and take some of the Doctor Feelgood stuff, prop the damn thing up for a couple of days, and get back out there.

Rizzo had been injected with cortisone to quicken the healing.

He healed. He played about half the game.

Great.

Hey, Rizzo is back.

Cool.

The Cubs tried to turn this into a hero movie with the element of surprise, the sudden pregame appearance of Rizzo on the field, the last-minute lineup change … it’s amazing! Unbelievable! Where was Al Michaels? DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? YES!

Um, well …

It was a sprained ankle.

Just a … sprained ankle. 

This was more Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics than Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, or Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood playing an NFL postseason game on a broken leg.

But kudos to Rizzo for gutting it out, playing, hitting a homer to tie the game 1-1, and arousing the Chicago media’s fanatical desire to author incredible fables that would be read to little baby Cubs fans at bedtime 218 years from now.

Now, if you really want to talk about a comeback by a down-and-out guy who won a freaking game and saved his team from a horrendous, spine-weakening loss … well, say hello to Matt Carpenter, and you don’t even have to god him up, because most of the Cardinals fan base is endlessly annoyed with him anyway.

Carpenter didn’t have a sprained ankle; he was suffering from a broken season, and a Grade 3 strain of his baseball career.

It’s been a rough summer. But with one swing of the bat — hell, I refuse to write  something stupid like, ‘Swing of the magic wand,’ — Carpenter turned smoke into a game-winning strike and instant happiness. It wasn’t fireworks. It was more like fire Joe Maddon being in the works.

Carpenter went alpha on the preposterously overhyped and overpaid Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, left the rest of the important work to Gallegos, and the Cardinals demoralized the Cubs and their fans with a cruel victory that turned the planned Rizzo storybook into a discarded and soaked souvenir program covered in spilt beer and flecks and fragments of peanut shells scattered in the aisles of the stinky old ballpark on Chicago’s North Side.

This was Carpenter’s game, and he supplied the real theatrics by launching only his third home run since June 18.

Salsa, anyone?

After the home run, Carpenter got splashed and doused at the entrance to the dugout by Carlos Martinez.

I thought it might have been someone crying.

I wonder if Cubs president of baseball ops Theo Epstein was crying … or hollering at team GM Jed Hoyer for failing to intervene and prevent the $43 million investment in Kimbrel (5.95 ERA, and 6.98 FIP) … or maybe Theo was preparing the severance package for scapegoat-manager Maddon … and getting ready to text Grandpa Rossy.

STANDINGS CHECK: The Cardinals lead the second-place Brewers by three games, and the third-place Cubs by four. The Cubs are now the third NL team in the cue for two wild-card spots, trailing the Nationals and Brewers.

At 42-23, the Cardinals have the NL’s best record since the All-Star break … at 28-12, St. Louis has the league’s top record since Aug. 9 … after reaching their low point of the season on May 29 (record: 26-28) the Cardinals are 60-39 for a .606 winning percentage.

The Brewers have won 12 or their last 14 (with a 3.10 ERA over that time.) The Crew will spend the weekend committing heinous baseball crimes against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, who have been plundered for 63 runs during their current six-game losing streak.

After a 44-45 first half the Bucs are 21-43 since the All-Star break. The Pirates trailed the Cardinals by a half-game at the break. In the unofficial, just-for-kicks second-half standings, the Pirates are 20 and ½ games behind St. Louis.

The Cubs are 57-57 since May 15 … the Cubs are 7-7 in their last 14 home games… the Cubs have had 60 runners thrown out on the bases this season, most among the 30 MLB teams.

PLAYOFF ODDS: FanGraphs has the Cardinals with an 82.3 percent chance of winning the division followed by the Cubs (9.9%) and Brewers (7.8%).

BASEBALL HERO: We have a tie!

1. Carpenter, of course.

2. But I’m not leaving Jack Flaherty out of this just because of a blown save that denied him a formal and official “win.” Flaherty subdued the Cubs for eight innings, making them turn more quiet with every pitch. Flaherty was barely touched, giving up three hits, a walk, and the Rizzo solo homer — with eight strikeouts.

After the Rizzo homer on a plump pitch, the Cubs went 2 for 18 against Flaherty, struck out five times, and made eight ground-ball outs. And one of the two hits was an infield single.

In his last 14 starts going back to July 7, Flaherty has a 1.07 ERA, has struck out 33.3 percent of batters faced, and has yielded only six homers in 92 and ⅓ innings.

TURNING POINT: I know some folks will be sore an Andrew Miller because he came in for Carlos Martinez and allowed a run to score from third on a ground ball. But I can’t hate on the lefty for getting a critical out on a good pitch. And even after the run scored to tie it 4-4, the Cubs had a runner on second base. Give up a hit there, and the game’s over. Cubs win and all of that. But Miller got a fly ball to end the scare in the bottom of the ninth — and then Carpenter happened.

HEY, YOU DID GOOD: Gallegos was money … Harrison Bader had two hits and drove in two runs … big game there by Harry … Tommy Edman doesn’t scare, eh? The rookie had two hits, including a triple, and scored two runs … Paul Goldschmidt had two hits, both doubles, and scored a run … Yadier Molina had a run-producing single that gave the Cards a 4-1 lead and knocked Kyle Hendricks out of the game… Flaherty did a swell job with two outstanding bunts — one that went for a single and loaded the bases in the third, when the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead. And the other was a sac bunt that set up a run-scoring opportunity in the fifth. (The Cardinals failed to score.)

PITCHING, PITCHING, PITCHING: The Cardinals have maintained their MLB-best 3.30 ERA since the All-Star break … the St. Louis starting rotation has the best ERA in the majors, 2.76) since the beginning of August … the St. Louis rotation ERA for September is 1.91.

THE EDMAN WATCH: he’s now batting .289 with a .325 OBP and .481 slugging percentage. He’s also swiped 13 of 14 bases. Add his speed and defense into the mix, and Edman is up to 2.2 WAR for the season in only 83 games … in 18 games this month Edman is batting .313 with a .353 OBP and .672 slug for a 1.025 OPS.

LOOK, YOU NEED TO DO BETTER: Marcell Ozuna went 0 for 5 and was hitless in two at-bats with runners in scoring position Thursday … in his last 25 games Ozuna is batting .170 with a .340 slugging percentage … in his last 21 games Ozuna is batting .115 with a .282 slug … since Aug. 24 Ozuna is batting .147 and striking out 35 percent of the time with runners in scoring position … Paul DeJong is batting .179 overall this month, with a .591 OPS and 30% strikeout rate.

WARNING SIGN? The Cardinals’ bullpen ERA of 4.82 for September ranks 21st in the majors and ninth in the NL.

BAD NEWS: Second baseman Kolten Wong departed with a hamstring injury; he’ll be out for a few days (at least.) This means more responsibility and playing time for Matt Carpenter at third base, with T. Edman moving in at second base. Wong is batting .341 with a .407 onbase rate and .486 slug since July 1 and has an .831 OPS since the end of May.

SECOND-GUESSING SHILDTY: Shildt was right to remove Flaherty after eight innings and 118 pitches. He was right to bring in closer Carlos Martinez, who hadn’t allowed a run in his previous 11 appearances. But Shildty — as is the case with most managers — waited way too long to remove Martinez. It was easy to see that Martinez was off form. There was no reason to let that lead get away. There are other fine relievers in the STL bullpen.

GOOD MOVE, SHILDTY: The manager has done a terrific job of handling the Matt Carpenter situation. Benching Carpenter, yes. But also paying attention to Carpenter, communicating with Carpenter, and showing respect to Carpenter. That positive attention really helps a struggling player keep his morale and confidence up.

ON DECK: The Cardinals will start Michael Wacha but the Cubs have switched RH Alec Mills into Friday’s 1:20 p.m. starting assignment. LH Jose Quintana has been moved back a day, to Saturday, to replace LH Cole Hamels who was scratched from Saturday’s start (sore shoulder.) Mills had a 5.11 as a starter at Triple A Iowa this season. In parts of three MLB seasons with the Royals and Cubs, Mills has a 4.34 ERA in 48 innings. He tops out at 90 mph with his fastball.

Have a great weekend…

–Bernie