CHICAGO -- The Cubs have ample experience when it comes to must-win games. That is why manager Joe Maddon rarely bites when asked if a tilt in the regular season meets that description. When Maddon and Chicago faced three straight elimination games in the World Series three years ago, those
CHICAGO -- The Cubs have ample experience when it comes to must-win games. That is why manager Joe Maddon rarely bites when asked if a tilt in the regular season meets that description. When Maddon and Chicago faced three straight elimination games in the World Series three years ago, those were must-win games.
Prior to Saturday's 9-8 loss to the rival Cardinals, Maddon finally allowed himself to loosen his thinking. With time running out on Chicago's season and his team on the outside looking in for a playoff spot right now, yes, every game left presents a must-win moment. The way Maddon sees things now, the Cubs only have Game 7’s in front of them.
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"Every one, in a singular fashion, are absolute must-wins," Maddon said. "You really don't want to give up any more ground right now. So, yes. These are one day at a time. They're almost like all seventh games we're playing right now. But you've got to do it in a manner that you're not pressing."
Not long after that assessment, the Cubs did what they could to press forward in a dramatic, seesaw affair that slipped away in the ninth. That is when Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong sent the first two pitches of the inning from closer Craig Kimbrel soaring into the bleachers in left-center field to send Chicago to a fifth consecutive defeat.
The Cubs dropped to six games back of the National League Central-leading Cardinals, with four games left between the rivals over Chicago's last seven games. The North Siders also slipped to three games back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot, after Milwaukee beat the Pirates later on Saturday night.
"Here we are. We've got a battle. And I helped put us in that situation," Kimbrel said. "Today was disappointing. I was pumped out there. I was excited. I felt like I had good stuff. And then, right there off the bat with two home runs. Frustrating."
The ninth-inning collapse came after a series of stirring moments by Chicago's offense, culminating in star shortstop Javier Báez coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter despite the hairline fracture in his left hand still not fully healed. Báez had not stepped in the batter's box since Sept. 1 and the Wrigley crowd roared as he emerged from the dugout, breaking into chants of "JAVY! JAVY!"
With Kris Bryant on first base representing the tying run, Báez saw three pitches from Carlos Martínez and swung through a 99 mph heater for a game-ending strikeout.
"We're in this together," Báez said. "If we're going to give everything, we're going to give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back."
Before Báez, there was Nicholas Castellanos -- the Cubs' big-ticket acquisition at the July 31 Trade Deadline -- legging out his 58th double of the year in the first. There was Anthony Rizzo -- playing with his ailing right ankle taped -- lumbering into second base with a hustle double in the second and punching out three hits on the day.
And there was a persistent response to St. Louis' rallies.
"Right through the lineup, we did so many things well," Maddon said. "It's really a difficult loss based on all the good things we did."
Ian Happ came off the bench and crushed a game-tying, pinch-hit home run in the fourth. Rookie Nico Hoerner -- summoned from Double-A in the wake of injuries just a dozen days ago -- launched a go-ahead homer in the sixth. All of it helped overcome a shaky, abbreviated outing by starter José Quintana.
And then, following a two-run blast by Marcell Ozuna that gave St. Louis a one-run lead in the seventh inning, the Cubs capitalized on a bit of unexpected luck.
With Ben Zobrist on second base, Tony Kemp came off the bench as a pinch-hitter to face Cardinals righty Giovanny Gallegos. Kemp swung through an 0-2 offering and began to make the trek back to the third-base dugout amidst a groan from the Wrigley faithful. Then, home-plate umpire Lance Barrett got Kemp's attention and called him back. Gallegos had balked.
Gallegos did not come completely set in his delivery and Zobrist was sent to third base as a result. Given a second chance, Kemp again swung at an 0-2 pitch -- this time drilling it high over center field. St. Louis' Harrison Bader drifted back and ran out of room at the base of the bricks and ivy. The wind carried the ball into the seats, where a fan wearing a St. Louis jersey made the catch.
"I've seen the balk called and the ball gets put in play and good things happen," Maddon said. "But I have not seen that one. There was a couple things that were kind of like pointing in our direction. Some of the things pointed in their direction. And eventually, they got our guy at the end."
Swept up in that moment, the fan who caught Kemp’s blast began jumping and howling with the Cubs loyalists surrounding him. At home plate, Zobrist let out a yell as he greeted Kemp with a two-handed high five. The Cubs capitalized on a bit of new life -- only to see it washed away in a span of two pitches from Kimbrel’s fingertips in the final frame.
With the threat of an early winter at hand -- something the Cubs have not experienced during Maddon's tenure -- there are seven Game 7's to go.
"Each and every game is a must win," Kimbrel said. "It has to be."
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.