CHICAGO -- The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry has historically been intense enough on its own, but it's overamped this weekend because of the close National League Central race. On Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the Cubs showed they're going to fight for the chance to repeat.
Despite losing both starting pitcher John Lackey and catcher Willson Contreras to ejections, the Cubs rallied for an 8-2 victory over the Cardinals to open a four-game lead in the division, with the Brewers sitting three back. Kris Bryant smacked a solo home run, scored the tying run and added an RBI single in a seven-run sixth inning to give Chicago its fourth straight win.
"They got fired up after they saw everything that happened," Contreras said of his teammates. "It happened because we care about the team, we care about the win, we care about the game. I know we are in a spot where we need to win most of the games to clinch the playoffs. Every game means a lot."
How big is this weekend? It's the first time the Cubs and Cardinals have squared off in a September series with both teams either in the division lead or within three games of the lead since Sept. 1-5, 2003.
The Cards' Tommy Pham hit a solo home run and Carlos Martinez delivered a tiebreaking RBI single in a key at-bat in the fifth that resulted in the ejections of Lackey and Contreras.
The game was tied at 1 with two outs and two runners on base against Lackey. The veteran right-hander thought a 2-2 pitch to Martinez was a called strike, and he walked off the mound and extended his arms in disbelief after home-plate umpire Jordan Baker signaled that it was a ball. Even Martinez had started toward St. Louis' dugout, thinking he was called out on strikes.
"I did think it was [strike three]," Martinez, speaking through a translator, acknowledged afterward. "I was pretty surprised."
Said Lackey: "[Baker] missed the pitch. It's a big spot in a huge game and he missed the pitch."
Given another chance, Martinez singled to right-center to drive in a run, and Lackey sprinted home to yell at Baker before being ejected. Contreras had to be restrained by manager Joe Maddon and shortstop Javier Baez, and the catcher also was tossed. Contreras also threw his mask in anger, and it accidentally struck Baker.
"I didn't mean to hit the umpire, I didn't mean to hit anybody," Contreras said. "I thought he made a good pitch. I got crossed up, but I think I did a pretty good job holding the baseball. I just got fired up and I couldn't control my emotions. If I have to apologize, I'll apologize to the umpire. I didn't mean to hit him."
The Cardinals, however, couldn't pad their lead, and the Cubs rebounded with their sixth-inning rally, sending 11 batters to the plate. All Wrigley Field needed was some bunting to add to the playoff feel.
"I'd love to be able to see us add on a little more right there," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We were looking for that big hit once again. Then we had opportunities to go after their bullpen to add on to a small lead. But we always know that these games can go one way or another in this place."
Cubs closer Wade Davis got the final four outs, the first time he's been asked to pitch more than one inning this season. It was the Cubs' 41st comeback win of the season, and all six of Chicago's wins against St. Louis at Wrigley Field have been come-from-behind efforts.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Out at home: Martinez had retired the first 10 batters he faced before Bryant launched a 2-0 pitch 400 feet to right-center for his 27th homer to tie the game at 1. The fun came when Anthony Rizzo got on base. Rizzo was hit by a pitch, and he moved up on Contreras' single. One out later, Jon Jay singled and Rizzo tried to score but was thrown out at home by Pham, although it didn't appear as if catcher Yadier Molina tagged Rizzo.
Rally caps: Bryant singled to open the sixth and Rizzo walked. Alex Avila, catching in place of Contreras, singled to center. Bryant hesitated at third, but then sprinted home to score the tying run. Jay followed with an RBI single to put the Cubs ahead, 3-2. Jason Heyward walked to load the bases and Baez hit a grounder to Martinez, who had trouble picking the ball up before throwing home. Molina couldn't get his glove on the ball and Avila scored on the fielder's choice. It was the third time in five starts that an inning unraveled after Martinez botched a potential inning-ending double play.
"This game will keep you humble," Matheny said. "And when you think you've got it all wrapped up, something will jump up and grab you a little bit. And right now he's fighting his confidence defensively. But I think it's just going to be a blip on the screen."
Matt Bowman took over for Martinez and pinch-hitter Ian Happ greeted him with a two-run single to open a 6-2 lead. Ben Zobrist added a sacrifice fly and Bryant hit an RBI single in his second at-bat in the inning.
"He's one of the best in the game, in my opinion," Bryant said of Martinez. "To have a really big inning against him and some good at-bats says a lot about this team and how good we are."
Big moment:Justin Wilson didn't have much time to think when he was called on to replace Lackey in the fifth with two on and two outs. That may have helped the left-hander, who struck out Matt Carpenter to end the inning. Wilson has struggled recently, giving up five runs on four hits and five walks in his last 1 2/3 innings of relief. The Cubs' bullpen is shorthanded because of injuries and needs Wilson to get on track.
"I know he hasn't pitched as well as he'd like, but he came into a situation where there's no room for error and you can't think about it and, 'Here's my stuff, and whoever wins, wins,'" Avila said. "I've always had confidence in him."
Said Wilson: "Getting hot in a hurry and on the field, it's a little different. I felt after the last outing, I clearly had to make an adjustment. A little bit mechanical, a little bit mental. I have to keep it rolling. It's a step in the right direction."
"It's an emotional game, especially in that given moment. You try to ride the momentum, but that's just how it goes."
-- Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader, on the team's missed opportunity to bury the Cubs after the ejections
"Impossible. I could say I'd like to see that, but why would I think that? That's the definition of insanity. Why would I think he's going to change in that particular moment? God bless him. I never want him to change. He's not going to change, so why expect that? It happened, we reacted and the rest of the group came together."
-- Maddon, when asked if he would've preferred Lackey had a more measured response
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
The Cubs surpassed 3 million in total attendance at home for the 10th season and second year in a row. Friday's crowd of 38,464 pushed the total attendance to 3,002,639.
Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong exited the game midway through the fifth inning due to lower back tightness. Wong, who has been dealing with the nagging injury for the better part of two weeks, was 0-for-2 with a run before being replaced by Greg Garcia. His availability for the rest of the weekend is questionable.
"It is what it is," Wong said. "It tightened up. I didn't want to get taken out of the game, but there comes a point where you've got to accept the fact that you're not going to help the team." More >
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: Coming off one of the most dominant performances of his career, Michael Wacha returns to the mound Saturday in the Cardinals' 3:05 p.m. CT game at Wrigley Field. The right-hander will carry a streak of 12 scoreless innings into the outing, which will be his eighth at Wrigley Field.
Cubs:Kyle Hendricks will start Saturday, and the Cubs are hoping he can go deep. He's coming off a loss to the Brewers in which he gave up three runs over six innings, striking out seven. Since the All-Star break, Hendricks is 2-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 10 starts. First pitch will be 3:05 p.m. CT from Wrigley Field.