For the first time in over a decade, the Cubs will play for the National League pennant. On Tuesday afternoon, Chicago continued its dream run through the postseason by winning NLDS Game 4, 6–4, to eliminate the NL Central-champion Cardinals and advance to the NLCS. It was the first time the Cubs have ever won a postseason series at Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914.
With a raucous crowd backing them, the Cubs fell behind early but snatched the lead back on—what else?—a home run from a young infielder, this time Javier Baez, who socked an opposite-field shot to rightfield with two on and two out in the bottom of the second to give Chicago a 4–2 lead. The Cardinals rallied to tie the game on back-to-back RBI hits from Tony Cruz and Brandon Moss in the top of the sixth, but in the bottom of that frame, Anthony Rizzo took a Kevin Siegrist offering and buried it in the rightfield bleachers to give Chicago a 5–4 lead. All throughout, Cubs manager Joe Maddon mixed and matched with seven different relievers after pulling his starter, Jason Hammel, in the fourth inning, emptying his bullpen over the course of six nerve-wracking innings for North Siders.
As Chicago, which is seeking the franchise's first World Series title since 1908, awaits the start of the NLCS on Saturday against the winner of the Mets-Dodgers series, here are three quick thoughts on Game 4 and on the series as a whole.
1. Power surge lifts Cubs
A day after blasting six home runs off St. Louis in an 8–6 Game 3 win, the Cubs once more used the long ball to their advantage in Game 4. With two on and two out after Hammel got Chicago on the board with an RBI single, Baez drilled a first-pitch fastball from Cardinals starter John Lackey into the rightfield seats for his first homer of the playoffs. Four frames later, it was Rizzo’s turn to give a St. Louis pitcher whiplash. After Siegrist retired Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant to begin the inning, the lefty hung an 0–2 curveball that Rizzo turned on and drove to right to break the tie. One inning later, Schwarber provided an insurance run with a majestic solo homer to right that went clear out of Wrigley.
All told, the Cubs finished the four-game NLDS with 10 home runs, nine coming in the friendly confines of Wrigley, and all of them hit by the Cubs’ super group of young sluggers: Rizzo (two), Soler (two), Schwarber (two), Bryant, Baez, Dexter Fowler and Starlin Castro. Including Schwarber’s and Fowler’s homers in the NL wild-card game, Chicago has hit 12 round-trippers in only 43 innings of postseason play, tops among all teams in the playoffs.
2. Much-maligned bullpen comes through
If there seemed to be one weak spot for the Cubs coming into the playoffs, it was the bullpen. Chicago’s 3.38 ERA from its relievers wasn’t bad by any stretch—it was the eighth-best mark in baseball during the regular season—but looking at the men who comprised the corps, Cubs fans could be excused for worrying what Maddon would do once his starter had to come out. But all series long, the castoffs and unknowns in Chicago's bullpen were lights out when it mattered, throwing 14 1/3 innings across four games and giving up just five earned runs and one walk while striking out 19. On Tuesday, the bullpen shone brightest, throwing the last six innings of the game, allowing only two runs and striking out 13, as the combo of Justin Grimm, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Fernando Rodney, Clayton Richard, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon improbably kept the Cardinals’ offense quiet.
It should be no surprise to see Maddon assemble a quality bullpen out of duct tape and shoestrings, but this particular assemblage of talent represents one of his greatest works yet. Just on Tuesday, he patched together 12 outs with two failed starters in Grimm and Wood; a pitcher in Cahill who was released twice this summer; a former closer in Rodney who was jettisoned by the Mariners after posting a 5.68 ERA in 50 2/3 innings; and a lefty in Richard who didn’t appear in a single major league game in 2014. Whether Maddon can keep getting the same results out of that group remains to be seen, but at least against St. Louis, the relievers were a huge reason Chicago is advancing.
3. Cardinals finally succumb to injuries
The Cardinals may have won 100 games this season, but the team that just saw its season end at Wrigley bears little resemblance to the one that steamrolled the league and won the division. Much of that is due to a staggering rate of attrition and injuries that ate away at St. Louis’ depth, particularly in the outfield, where the Cardinals were shuffling bodies in and out of spots as quickly as they could call them up. But no injuries ended up hurting more than the losses of pitcher Carlos Martinez and catcher Yadier Molina.
Though Molina was able to play through the torn left thumb ligament that he suffered in late September, the injury clearly compromised him: He picked up just one hit in eight NLDS at-bats before re-injuring his hand in Game 3 and was unable to answer the bell for Game 4. His backup, Cruz, did collect an RBI hit in his stead on Tuesday, but the dropoff from the playoff-tested veteran Molina to the light-hitting Cruz is sizable both at the plate and behind it. That looked to be especially true in the second inning after Baez’s homer, when an irate Lackey appeared to be screaming at his backstop over pitch selection.
For as much as Molina’s injury hurt, however, the loss of Martinez to a shoulder strain in September proved fatal. The 23-year-old righthander had been the team’s most electric starter during the season, leading the team with 9.2 strikeouts per nine, and his injury exposed a rotation that was perilously thin. Though Lackey was stellar in Game 1, veterans Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn were hit hard in Game 2, and the slumping Michael Wacha had nothing in Game 3 after hitting a career high in innings over the course of the season. With no one left to turn to for Game 4, manager Mike Matheny was forced to tap Lackey on three days’ rest, something the veteran righty has done just twice in his 13-year career in the regular season and last did in the playoffs back in 2005. Lackey faltered early and lasted just three innings, and despite briefly tying the game, the Cardinals couldn't keep their season alive.