Willson! Willson!! Cubs' cast finds way in St. Louis
By Jenifer Langosch and Carrie Muskat
ST. LOUIS -- Eddie Butler's Cubs debut didn't come in just any mid-May game. The 26-year-old right-hander threw his first pitch for the defending champions on the road, against their long-time rival, in front of a sellout crowd of 47,601 split into red and blue.
Looking much better than a typical fill-in fifth starter, Butler inched the Cubs closer to the first-place Cardinals and snapped St. Louis' winning streak with a 3-2 victory at Busch Stadium on Friday. Three homers -- including two from Willson Contreras -- provided all the necessary support for a pitcher who entered the day with a career 6.50 ERA.
"I had a little adrenaline going, first one out there," Butler said. "It feels good to come in here and help the guys win."
The Cubs, now 1 1/2 games back of the Cardinals in the National League Central, acquired Butler in a February trade with the Rockies and summoned him from the Minors to plug the rotation spot vacated by an injured Brett Anderson. Coming off a Triple-A start in which he covered six scoreless innings, Butler did the same against a Cardinals offense that had scored 43 runs over its six-game winning streak.
"I didn't know he threw that hard," Contreras said of Butler. "Once I saw the scoreboard 96, 95 [mph], I said, 'We're going to use the fastball,' because they were behind on it. We had a good plan."
Butler worked around three walks and surrendered two hits, both infield singles to Aledmys Diaz. The Cardinals couldn't advance a runner past second against Butler, who picked up his first big league win in 363 days while matching the longest start of his career. With the performance, Butler became the first pitcher to throw six or more scoreless innings in his Cubs debut since Ryan O'Malley in 2006.
"We have a group of guys who are swinging the bats well, and he held us down," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He didn't make a lot of mistakes. You're just going to have those games. It seems like we have them often against young pitchers we haven't seen that much."
Contreras offered some early breathing room for Butler with home runs in his first two at-bats vs. Cardinals starter Mike Leake. Leake, the National League's ERA leader, entered the game having allowed one homer over his previous 40 1/3 innings this season. Since joining the Cardinals' rotation, Leake is 0-4 with a 5.08 ERA against the Cubs.
After all of Contreras' heroics with the bat, he made an error in the bottom of the ninth that could've cost the Cubs the game. With two outs, Randal Grichuk was at second after a walk and stolen base. Wade Davis struck out Kolten Wong, but Contreras dropped the ball and had to throw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The throw was high, and Grichuk scored on the error while Wong reached second.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon joked that Contreras made a "503-mph throw to first," while Rizzo said, "It's coming at 110 [mph] it seems like."
"To be honest," Contreras said, "I didn't throw that one hard. I was making sure I made a good throw. I think it was hard for [Rizzo] to see it, and that's why we had an error."
Davis bailed out Contreras by striking out Matt Adams to end the game.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Double dipping: Contreras supplied most of the Cubs' offense with the first multihomer game of his career. He connected for his first blast in the second inning, driving it 391 feet with an exit velocity of 109.5 mph, according to Statcast™. His fourth-inning homer -- a 418-foot shot -- came off Contreras' bat at 113.6 mph, making it the second-hardest-hit home run by a Cubs player since 2015. Three of Contreras' four home runs this season have come at Busch Stadium, where only one Cardinals player (Dexter Fowler, 4) has hit more.
"I don't know what's going on at this ballpark," Contreras said. "I'm seeing the ball pretty well over here."
Caught straying: Having built the lead with his bat, Contreras helped preserve it with his arm. After Carl Edwards Jr. issued a pair of two-out walks in the seventh inning, Contreras eyed Fowler taking too generous a lead at first base. The catcher snapped a throw down to first base, where Rizzo made the tag to end the inning. The Cardinals have now been picked off a Major League-most seven times this season.
"He knows. He's seen this guy behind the plate," Matheny said, alluding to the connection between former teammates Fowler and Contreras." He's picked off more than anybody in the game with what he did last year and what he's done this year. Not a surprise. But you can get caught off guard [by] just sometimes being aggressive."
Said Rizzo: "[Fowler] got big over there, and Willson is so good back there. It's a big play for us. We try to save [that play] for when we need it."
"I plan on holding the spot. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing. They're going to put up runs and play some ball behind us. For me, it's just attacking the zone." -- Butler, who will stay in the Cubs' rotation for now
"I was looking to continue what I was doing in spring. I'm happy with what's going on. I'm still trying to learn and get better. It's going in a positive direction." -- Leake, on opening the season with seven consecutive quality starts
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs:Jon Lester, who is coming off a tough no-decision against the Yankees, will start the second game of this three-game series on Saturday. The lefty threw 120 pitches in his last outing, and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back. Kris Bryant was expected back in the lineup after he was a late scratch because of an upset stomach on Friday. First pitch is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. CT.
Cardinals: The Cardinals are building in extra rest for Michael Wacha by skipping him this turn through the rotation. As a result, right-hander Carlos Martinez draws the start on Saturday. Winless in his first five starts, Martinez has notched victories in his last two outings. His 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings are fourth best in the National League.