Cards' Central lead cut as Cubs gain ground

Cards' Central lead cut as Cubs gain ground

ST. LOUIS -- Having watched his club be swept and outscored by 11 runs during a June visit to St. Louis, Cubs manager Joe Maddon hoped they would make a September statement upon returning to Busch Stadium for a series budding with playoff implications. Consider that challenge met, as the Cubs, despite a spirited comeback attempt by the Cardinals, held on for an 8-5 victory Tuesday night behind seven RBIs from Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

"We're moving in the right direction," Rizzo said of the Cubs. "I feel like this team, every day, we're getting more confident and more confident. With the group we have, that can be really scary."

The victory kept the Cubs, winners of five straight, two games behind the Pirates in the race for the top National League Wild Card spot, and pulled them to within 6 1/2 games of the NL Central-leading Cardinals. St. Louis leads Pittsburgh by 4 1/2 games.

Can the Cubs catch the Cardinals?

"I don't see why not," Rizzo said. "Obviously, the Pirates feel the same way. We just have to keep playing baseball. We can't worry about what anyone else is doing. We just have to keep winning ballgames and taking it one game at a time and keep getting better."

After surging to an eight-run lead in three innings Monday, the Cubs led by six before the Cardinals batted in the second. A two-run blast by Rizzo hurt starter Michael Wacha in the first. Castro then punctuated a four-run second with a three-run homer, his seventh long ball of the year. Castro and Rizzo finished the night a combined 4-for-8.

Castro's three-run shot

Facing a Cardinals staff that leads the Majors in ERA, the Cubs opened the series by scoring 17 unanswered runs. Wacha, pitching on 10 days' rest, lasted just four innings, his shortest start of the season. He allowed a season-high six earned runs.

"It's not something that we're accustomed to, and it's not something that people should get used to," Wacha said of he and Lance Lynn allowing six runs in back-to-back games. "These last couple nights are not typical of what we've been doing all year. We hate putting our team in that situation early on in a game to have to rally back."

Cards' starters not benefiting from extra rest

Chicago starter Jason Hammel contributed an RBI single and threw six scoreless innings before the Cardinals' offense awoke in the seventh. Randal Grichuk tagged Hammel for a two-run homer to ignite a five-run inning. It ended with Grichuk striking out to strand the bases loaded against Pedro Strop, the fourth Cubs pitcher to take the mound in the inning.

Hammel's quality start

Hammel lost one of those games in June at Busch Stadium. What's the difference this series?

"I don't think we're a different team, just a smarter team," Hammel said.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Power rangers: With home runs by Rizzo and Castro, the Cubs have hit 75 since the All-Star break, the most in the NL. They've belted 52 in the past 27 games. Rizzo's blast, a two-run shot in the first, was the 100th of his career. The Cubs also have hit 152 homers this season; they totaled 157 last year. More >

Randal returns: Cleared only to pinch-run until he successfully lobbied for pinch-hit consideration just before first pitch, Grichuk made a surprise pinch-hit at-bat -- his first since Aug. 17 -- in the seventh and promptly blasted a 451-foot home run to give the Cardinals their first runs of the series. Grichuk, who is tied for second on the club with 16 homers, has been sidelined the last few weeks with right elbow irritation.

Grichuk's mammoth two-run shot

"They said there was no risk of hurting it anymore, so I felt good in BP and they said really it was a matter of getting my timing down and feeling comfortable facing Major League pitching," Grichuk said. "I said I wanted to help my team win, so I talked to everybody I needed to talk to and got the OK." More >

Glovework: Hammel's outing was much easier because of his infield. Addison Russell bobbled Wacha's grounder in the third, but recovered in time to throw him out at first, thanks to a long stretch by Rizzo. Javier Baez, making his second career start at third, scooped up Greg Garcia's grounder with his bare hand in the fifth and threw in time. Baez also stopped Jason Heyward's hard-hit ball and threw from his knees to end the sixth.

Baez's amazing defense

"That's huge," Rizzo said of the solid defense. "That's what will win us a lot more ballgames. If we can scratch some runs and play good defense, that's what it's all about."

A spirited seventh: Held scoreless for the first 15 innings of the series, the Cards broke out for their second five-run frame on this homestand. The Cardinals sent 11 batters to the plate in the inning and, after Grichuk's homer, enjoyed two-out, run-scoring hits from Stephen Piscotty and Tony Cruz. Cruz had entered the game earlier in the inning as a pinch-runner for Yadier Molina.

Cardinals' five-run 7th inning

"No doubt [we] put some fear in the fact that we had the go-ahead run at the plate in that situation," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "It was a good inning for us. We just weren't able to keep it going. But it was a real impressive job by our guys to keep it going."

"They're good and they always fight back," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the Cardinals. "We won a game [Monday] relatively easily but tonight, [the Cardinals] showed you why you never let up. They're good, they don't quit, that's why they're champions." More >

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Cubs won, 9-0, on Monday and now have scored at least eight runs in back-to-back days against the Cardinals for the first time since June 29-30, 1937.

WHAT'S NEXT
Cubs: Jon Lester will close the series at Busch Stadium on Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. CT as the Cubs go for the three-game sweep. The lefty picked up the win in his last outing against the D-backs, giving up two runs over five innings. He's 1-2 with a 1.96 ERA in three starts this year against St. Louis.

Cardinals: The Cards will close out a nine-game homestand Wednesday. Carlos Martinez, who has allowed at least three earned runs in seven straight starts, will look to get back on track as he pursues his 14th win.

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Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.