ST. LOUIS -- In a season the Cardinals often felt so close to putting the pieces together that would ignite a push into October, their postseason aspirations -- perhaps fittingly, and certainly cruelly -- ended dramatically by falling just short one final time.
There is no longer a path back to the playoffs for St. Louis, which, with a 2-1, 11-inning loss to the Cubs on Thursday, fell four games back of the Rockies for the final National League Wild Card spot. Just three games remain on the Cardinals' schedule.
A day after clinching the NL Central crown at Busch Stadium, the Cubs, with a game-ending catch by outfielder Leonys Martin, finished off their season dominance over the Cardinals by robbing them of an opportunity to enter the final weekend with meaningful games left to play.
"It feels like just the rug got taken out from under me," said Paul DeJong, after Martin brought back what would have been a potential game-tying home run. "The end of a season. The end of an opportunity for us to face Milwaukee and make things interesting down the stretch."
With the Cardinals down to their final out, DeJong drove a 1-1 fastball to deep center. Martin, playing in a no-doubles defense, tracked it and timed his leap perfectly. As he came down with the ball, the Cubs dugout emptied in celebration. The Cardinals watched, stunned.
"It just adds insult to injury," Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter said. "It was just an ugly way to lose a game like that. The emotional side of that is what makes it tough because you think you're back in it and the guy makes a great play."
• With Cards' WC chase done, so is Carpenter
According to Statcast™, DeJong's ball, with an exit velocity of 102.4 mph and 28-degree launch angle, is a home run more than seven out of 10 times.
"I knew he put a good swing on it," Martin said. "I felt the warning track and after a couple steps, I felt it was the right time to jump, and thank God, I made it."
"That's an exceptional play," added Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "The way he jumped to the wall was textbook."
Martin, who also caught the final out on Wednesday in the Cubs' clinching game, gave the ball on Thursday to Jen-Ho Tseng, who notched his first Major League win with three innings of scoreless relief.
"He has to get it," Martin said of Tseng. "I want to keep [the ball from Wednesday]. That's going to be like something I'll never forget in my life. To be here and catch the last out to clinch it and get to the postseason. I will try to keep it."
The Cubs proved to be a nemesis to the Cardinals all season, finishing with a 14-5 record against them and 7-1 in one-run games. The rivalry has become a bit one-sided, too, with the Cubs kicking the Cardinals from the postseason in 2015, dethroning them atop the division in 2016 and delivering the knockout blow on Thursday.
And this time, the Cubs did so while fielding a lineup that featured seven players who spent time in Triple-A this year. One of those, Taylor Davis, drove in the game-winning run with a two-out, RBI double off Cardinals reliever Matt Bowman in the 11th. Bowman was making his league-leading 75th appearance.
"I went from the lowest of lows to literally the coolest thing I've ever done, other than marrying my wife," said Davis, who was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts before his hit. "Being able to win a game, especially against this team, in this park, it's so cool, and the atmosphere. Our fans were just as loud as theirs and it was really cool to see."
Starters Lance Lynn and Kyle Hendricks both completed five innings before turning the game over to the bullpens. For Hendricks, the outing was a tuneup for an upcoming NL Division Series start against the Nationals.
Lynn's appearance brought more finality.
Thursday's start was likely the last of Lynn's Cardinals career. A free agent at season's end, the right-hander finishes his year back from Tommy John surgery having made a team-high 33 starts with a 3.43 ERA.
"This will be my first active year not participating in the postseason," Lynn said. "It's not a great feeling. But it happens sometimes. Hopefully next year I get that opportunity, wherever it may be."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Fast feet: After leading off the sixth with a single, Tommy Pham used his speed to help the Cardinals manufacture the tying run. He swiped his 25th stolen base of the season, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on William Fowler's groundout to second. Pham, whose stolen-base total ranks fourth among all NL players, is the first Cardinals player to steal 25 bases in a season since Tony Womack in 2004.
Striking first: Ian Happ, who had already become the fastest player in Cubs history to hit 20 home runs, tallied No. 23 to give the Cubs a first-inning lead against Lynn. Happ's line-drive solo shot just over the right-field wall snapped his string of 15 consecutive games without a home run. The homer was the 27th allowed by Lynn this season, setting a career high.
"That's always the goal. When the season begins, I'm always looking at 90, 90-plus [wins]. That's like the benchmark. Believe me, it was not lost on me. I said that as soon as it happened, 'Don't forget boys, that was No. 90.' I love that number and you keep building on it. From where we came from at the All-Star break to now, give our guys a ton of credit for the mental effort." -- Maddon, on the Cubs winning their 90th game of the season
"This is the first time I have to stand up here and say that [reaching the postseason] is just not going to happen. We fell short of what we wanted to do. -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Thursday ends a streak of 1,131 consecutive regular-season games the Cardinals played with playoff aspirations, a streak that dates back to the start of the 2011 season. It had been the longest active streak in Major League Baseball.
Cubs:Jose Quintana will make his final regular-season start on Friday when the Cubs open a three-game home series against the Reds. Quintana is coming off a shutout against the Brewers in which he struck out 10. He's 7-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 13 starts with the Cubs. First pitch is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. CT.
Cardinals: The Cardinals will host the Brewers in their final regular-season series, which begins Friday at Busch Stadium. First pitch is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. CT. John Gant will make his second spot start for St. Louis and will be opposed by Milwaukee's Chase Anderson.
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