ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina threw his arms up in disbelief. Out in center fielder, Albert Almora Jr. pumped his fist and shouted. He then popped the baseball he chased down out of his glove before snaring it out of the air emphatically with a stab of his
ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina threw his arms up in disbelief. Out in center fielder, Albert Almora Jr. pumped his fist and shouted. He then popped the baseball he chased down out of his glove before snaring it out of the air emphatically with a stab of his right hand.
Don't tell Almora the game doesn't matter.
"Obviously, it's been a rough stretch for us," Almora said after the Cubs' 8-2 win over the Cardinals. "These are big games, honestly."
In the fourth inning on Friday night, Almora pulled off one of the Cubs' defensive highlights of the 2019 season, robbing Molina of a home run with an incredible leaping catch. That grab came just three innings after Almora also stole away a would-be extra-base hit from Molina with another running, jumping catch at the wall in center.
The second defensive theft looked like a no-doubt homer off the bat.
Molina lifted a 2-0 two-seamer from Cubs rookie Alec Mills, launching it high over center just to the left of the grass-covered batter's eye. Almora -- a late addition to the lineup in light of Nicholas Castellanos' right groin injury -- sprinted back and to his right. As the center fielder closed in on the wall, he stutter-stepped to time his jump.
Almora then left his feet, reaching over the wall and above the patch of bushes that sit between the fence and the fans. He made the catch as the St. Louis crowd unleashed a collective groan. Molina joined them with a stunned reaction of his own, standing on the field with his helmet tucked under his left arm before exiting the diamond.
"That catch," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That catch was outstanding, man. I've seen a lot of good catches over a wall. That ranks right up there at the top. How high he got up, how he climbed it, everything about it. And again, under the circumstances, spectacular catch."
Five pitches later, Matt Carpenter exacted some payback with a shot that dropped into the visitors' bullpen in left -- well out of Almora's reach -- to put the Cubs in a 1-0 hole. In the end, Chicago's seven-run seventh inning swung the momentum in the other direction, helping the Cubs snap a nine-game losing streak.
The sixth loss of that season-defining skid was on Sunday, when a drive to deep center from St. Louis' José Martínez nicked off the top of Almora's glove for a ninth-inning, leadoff triple at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals scored two runs in that frame to pull off a 3-2 win that completed a four-game sweep of the Cubs.
That loss contributed to the Cubs missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
"It's definitely new. New to me and new to a lot of guys here that never experienced that," Almora said. "But right now, it's just trying to stay healthy and I'll try to finish on the best note possible. Like, today's a great team win."
In the first inning, Molina drilled a pitch from Mills to straightaway center, where Almora hustled back for his first defensive gem of the evening. He jumped, grabbed the deep fly and slammed into the padded wall. Almora then rolled over backwards, popped to his feet and hoisted his glove in the air to show that he had indeed made the inning-ending catch.
"Those were unbelievable," Mills said of Almora's two catches. "I think the [first] one was at least a double and the second one, it looked three, four feet out. I said it in here, that's the best catch we've ever had while I've been pitching. That was unbelievable. He saved me tonight."
Almora exited the game in the top of the sixth due to cramping throughout his lower half and was replaced on second base by pinch-runner Javier Báez. The center fielder said his legs were locking up on him before the game and again as he sprinted toward the wall en route to the home run robbery.
Under those circumstances, Almora said he felt the catch against Molina was his best highlight-reel grab in the Majors to date.
"I was trying to do everything I can to stay in the game," Almora said. "Even on that play in particular, I was cramping up as I was running towards the wall. I think that's No. 1 in the big leagues for me."
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.