CHICAGO — Cardinals rallies go to 11, or at least they did on Friday.
Eleven up, eleven not down, and just like that, St. Louis put an abrupt kibosh on the Chicago Cubs’ post-break spree.
Chicago entered the game on a six-game run that pulled it within a game of first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central. All of those wins happened on the road, so the denizens of Wrigley Field were particularly amped up for the homecoming game against arch-rival St. Louis. The house was packed. The afternoon was hot and humid.
Cubs starter Jake Arrieta was sharp in his outing, throwing six quality innings, allowing two runs with six strikeouts and no walks. It’s just the third start since the beginning of last season in which Arrieta did not issue a free pass. Meanwhile, Willson Contreras hammered a two-run homer in the first, and Anthony Rizzo drove in the go-ahead run with a single in the fifth. It was Cubs 3, Cardinals 2, and Chicago’s string of effective starts had stretched to six games.
“We’re at the point of the season where, if you don’t have it by now, it’s tough to find,” Arrieta said. “You want to try and elevate your game a little bit. Obviously the competition amongst the staff, whether it’s talked about or it’s just something that goes unsaid, we all want to go out there and follow the guy before us with a quality outing.”
That’s where it stood as Carl Edwards Jr. toed the rubber to start the eighth. From there, the momentum didn’t so much shift as it did an out-and-out face-plant. Edwards has been very good lately, with 12 strikeouts in his past 6 2/3 innings over seven scoreless appearances.
That was it — in came Hector Rondon for the toughest save chance a set-up guy can face. Bases loaded, no outs. It wasn’t a spot that manager Joe Maddon wanted to put Rondon in, nor did Rondon really want to be in that spot. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
“Rondon, I put him in a bad spot,” Maddon said. “I just had no choice, but I put him in a bad spot. When I took him out, I said, ‘Listen, Ronnie, I put you in a bad spot.’”
As it turned out, Rondon didn’t fare any better than Edwards. He faced four hitters, giving up two walks and two hits, as all three of the runners he inherited from Edwards scored, as did one of his own. It was a slow rally, death by a thousand tiny cuts. St. Louis got two-run doubles from a pair of rookies — Paul DeJong and Carson Kelly — but otherwise put together a string of singles and walks, singles and walks.
“It’s tough to come in in that situation,” Rondon said. “Especially when you are trying to hold the lead and to have a plan, too. It’s really tough to get success in those moments, but it is what it is.”
Rondon departed without retiring any of the four guys he faced, as Maddon pulled him quickly so he could be used later in the weekend. That left Justin Grimm to clean up the mess, knowing he was going to go for a while regardless of what happened. The first four men Grimm faced: double, walk, single, single.
“Grimmer just had to suck it up at that point,” Maddon said. “We were out of [relievers]. Listen, man, that was kind of a strange day.”
That’s where it stopped, as Grimm recovered to get the last six outs for the Cubs. But the damage had been more than done in the eighth. Nine runs. Six hits. Six walks. Chicago had started the game with a 43-2 mark when entering the eighth with a lead. Make it 43-3, as St. Louis cruised to an 11-4 win.
Like Edwards, Rondon had been on a roll. During July, he had recorded seven scoreless innings over six appearances with 10 strikeouts and only one walk. Grimm has been struggling, having allowed nine runs now in eight July innings, but of course if Edwards and Rondon had fared better, he wouldn’t have been needed.
It was a disappointing end to the winning streak and eliminated the possibility of the Cubs moving in a virtual tie with Milwaukee, depending on how the Brewers do Friday night in Philadelphia. But if we’re still in a time of year where it can be said that process trumps results, Chicago was fine. Maddon insisted that despite the bad inning, his club played well.
“We really played well today,” Maddon said. “We played a good game of baseball. The at-bats were good, we were hitting the ball all over the place. We did everything well. Jake was really good.
“We had a bad inning, pitching. That’s the third time in a week here at this ballpark, if you go back prior to the [All-Star] break, that’s a seven, a nine and a 10. I have not seen that since rookie ball. That’s crazy stuff.”
As Maddon alluded to, this is the third time the Cubs have been throttled by a big inning at home in the past couple of weeks. On July 6, they gave up a seven-run third in a loss to Milwaukee. Then, in a nightmarish loss to close the first half, they gave up 10 runs in the first in a loss to Pittsburgh.
“You stick around this game long enough, and you see some crazy things happen,” Arrieta said. “A couple of guys had a pretty rare outing in the eighth there. You won’t see that, really, ever again from those two guys. You’ve got to give them a little credit on the other side.”
Still, those other big innings were allowed by starting pitchers, not the set-up staff, and overall, the Cubs’ relievers have been credible when it comes to protecting leads. It was just one of those days, not a trend. Not yet, anyway, so it allows all the responsible parties to trot out the shopworn platitudes about relievers having short memories.
“That was a weird inning,” Rondon said. “First time I’ve seen something like that, nine runs with no outs. It’s weird. But it is what is and we tried to give our best on the mound. They got us today, and we’ll see tomorrow.”
The streak is done, but the pennant race is very much present in the NL Central, which is shaping up as a four-team battle. The Cubs are ready to move on. In a classic case of pathetic fallacy, as soon as the stunned crowd shuffled out of Wrigley Field, the skies opened up in a torrent. Yes, it was a ready-made metaphor for that eighth inning.
But the real lesson came next. The rain stopped, the skies brightened, and everyone was ready to get back to the ballpark on Saturday.