ST. LOUIS -- Facing their archrivals from Chicago for the first time in postseason history, the Cardinals, behind the experienced postseason arm of John Lackey and a late rookie power surge, nabbed a 4-0 win over the Cubs at Busch Stadium on Friday to open their best-of-five National League Division Series.
Lackey outdueled good friend Jon Lester to boost the Cardinals to an early series lead that has proven pivotal in DS play. Of the 40 teams to win the first game of the NLDS, 36 have gone on to advance to the NL Championship Series. The Cubs will have a chance to even the series on Saturday, when the two teams meet in Game 2 at 4:37 p.m. CT/5:37 ET on TBS.
"You know, you put a guy in a situation like this, and we talk a lot about him being a big-game pitcher, about the experience he's had, how he thrives in these situations, and then he just takes it there and goes a step further with just the way he competed today," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of his Game 1 starter. "It was exactly what we needed, and I don't know if you could ask him to do any more than what he did."
The Cardinals are 8-0 in the NLDS when winning Game 1, while the Cubs have lost all 11 postseason series they've had in which they dropped the first game.
"I hate [saying] 'must win,' because I think they're all must win, especially this late in the year," Chris Coghlan said of the Cubs' status in the series. "If we can win one out of two here the whole time, I think that's a victory. [Saturday], if we come out and do our thing, I feel if we execute and play our game, we'll come out on top."
Making the 19th postseason start of his career, Lackey kept the Cubs hitless through five innings and allowed only three baserunners over 7 1/3, matching the longest start of his postseason career. Lackey erased two on double plays and stranded another at third when Dexter Fowler flied out to the wall in right to close the sixth.
Lester, teammates with Lackey on the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox, was stung by back-to-back hits by the Cards in the first. Stephen Piscotty, in his first postseason at-bat, dropped a ground-rule double into the right-field corner and then scored on Matt Holliday's single up the middle.
"I thought both guys would pitch well, and they did," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the starters. "From the beginning, I could see that Lackey was on. I could see after the first inning Jon Lester was on. So you just figured like 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, that kind of game."
The Cardinals eventually pulled away with home runs by rookies Tommy Pham and Piscotty to turn a one-run lead into four-run cushion in the eighth. Pham, with a solo shot off Lester, became the third Cards rookie to homer in his first postseason plate appearance. Lester faced one more batter before giving the ball to Pedro Strop, who served up a two-run blast to Piscotty.
"When Tommy hit his, we were so fired up when he came across [the plate], I think we broke his necklace or something," Piscotty said. "His home run took a tremendous amount of pressure off me in my at-bat, and who knows, maybe I don't hit that home run if he doesn't come through with that one."
Though it wasn't a save situation, the Cardinals summoned closer Trevor Rosenthal in the ninth. Rosenthal, who hadn't pitched in 11 days, allowed two baserunners before sealing the win with a strikeout of Kris Bryant.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Setting the tone: Not only did the Cardinals become the first home team to score first this postseason, Lackey's ability to navigate through the top of the frame unscathed was critical. As good as Lackey has been all season, he's had his first-inning issues, as 20 of the 71 regular-season runs scored off him were plated in that opening frame. He needed only 12 pitches to finish a 1-2-3 inning Friday. The Cards went 30-5 this season when leading after the first.
"They're an aggressive team, and I knew they would be swinging," Lackey said. "I don't have a whole lot of tricks for them. We're in the same division, and I've been doing this a long time, so you just got to try to locate and try to execute." More >
Missed chances:Addison Russell singled to lead off the Cubs' sixth, the first hit off Lackey, who had faced the minimum over five innings. Russell stole second and then reached third on Lester's groundout. Fowler teased the blue-clad fans in the sellout crowd of 47,830 when he flied out to the warning track in right to end the inning. In the seventh, Kyle Schwarber bunted for a hit to lead off, and after Bryant struck out, Anthony Rizzo grounded into a 3-6 double play.
"We could not get anything generated," Maddon said. "We had maybe … one opportunity when eventually Addison advanced to third base, but they … pitched really well all season. That's a big reason why they won 100 games is that they've pitched so well." More >
Savvy swap: With his team clinging to a one-run lead, Matheny chose to improve his defense in the seventh by inserting Mark Reynolds to play first and therefore allowing Piscotty to move to the outfield, where he's much more comfortable. The Cardinals saw immediate dividends, as Reynolds stabbed a Rizzo ground ball to start an inning-ending double play.
"Mark made a very, very tough play," Matheny said. "That play is much tougher than maybe what it looked like at face value. You just put them in situations where you hope that they can thrive, and, boy, watching them do what they do, it's been fun all season."
Seeing red: Strop entered the game having given up seven earned runs on seven hits and five walks over two innings in five games at Busch Stadium, which are not good numbers for a late-inning setup pitcher. On Friday, he served up one hit -- Piscotty's two-run homer -- in two-thirds of an inning. Maddon said pregame that he wouldn't shy away from using Strop, but he may want to reconsider.
"Today, I felt really good and I just missed my location," Strop said. "I was supposed to execute the pitch. There's no pressure. It just happened."
"It's kind of hard to talk about because, I mean, for me it's something I dreamed about as a little kid. And now, you know, it's happening. So, like I said, it's truly a blessing, kind of surreal, you know?" -- Pham, on homering in his first postseason at-bat
"It's a race, it's not a sprint. The Pittsburgh [Wild Card Game] was a sprint. This is a nice little jog that we need to pace ourselves. If we go out there and win the next game, we put ourselves in a pretty good situation and go back home to our crowd. We're not too worried. We are frustrated that we lost, but it happens." -- Schwarber
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
With his pinch-hit home run, Pham became the seventh player in franchise history -- and third rookie -- to go deep in his first postseason at-bat. It had happened most recently in 2014, when Randal Grichuk took Clayton Kershaw deep in Game 1 of the Cardinals' NLDS against the Dodgers. Piscotty and Pham are now among five Cardinals rookies to homer in their first postseason game.
MOLINA MAKES IT THROUGH
Playing for the first time since Sept. 20, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina made it through a full game wearing a plastic splint on his left thumb, which is still healing from a ligament sprain. Molina, who went 0-for-3 at the plate, said afterward that "everything was good tonight."
Added Matheny: "You could tell he's just been anxious to get in there. I thought his swings looked good, [as was] the way he moved behind the plate today."
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Cardinals lost their first challenge in the third inning after asking for a review on a bang-bang play at first base. Holliday was initially ruled out by first-base umpire Bill Welke after Cubs second baseman Starlin Castro recovered from his own bobble and threw to first to beat Holliday for the third out of the inning. The call stood after a one-minute, 49-second review. The decision left the Cardinals with one challenge for the rest of the game. Unlike the regular season, teams are granted two challenges each in postseason games. More >
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs:Kyle Hendricks will start Game 2 of the NLDS on Saturday at Busch Stadium. Hendricks finished strong, giving up three earned runs over 18 innings over three starts. In his last outing on Oct. 3 against the Brewers, he gave up one hit over six scoreless frames. The right-hander made one start against the Cardinals in May, and he gave up four runs over five innings. First pitch was scheduled for 4:37 p.m. CT/5:37 ET.
Cardinals: After watching the team's last two postseason runs while sidelined by arm injuries, lefty Jaime Garcia will start Game 2 of the NLDS for the Cardinals. His last appearance against the Cubs came in April 2012, prior to rotator cuff surgery ('13) and thoracic outlet surgery ('14). The Cardinals have won 10 of Garcia's past 12 starts and are 3-3 in postseason games in which he appeared.