I'm not really sure why, but this is what I am feeling tonight.
The Cubs have had an amazing run of elite closer production the past two and half seasons. The Cubs have employed three different relievers in that role, and the production has somehow managed to get better despite the cost going down. The one main difference between the pen this year and past postseason runs is the absolute depth. Steve Cishek gets the ball so frequently because he is very trustworthy. That eases the load on Pedro Strop who should be more effective. Mike Montgomery will head back to the bullpen at some point this season, and being used as a starter now consistently might actual save his arm for October. Then there is the notion that Justin Wilson was warming up if things got further out of hand after the first two singles in the ninth inning. Writing that sentence just a month ago would have meant Maddon was waving a white flag on the night. The depth is just much better and perhaps an injury to Carl Edwards Jr. now might be a blessing in disguise for October as well.
Guys... I don't want to jinx it but this might be real
The random endpoints game of sample size selection allows one to construct any sort of argument one wishes, but Jason Heyward's recent breakout feels different. And I think it was not just that Heyward delivered a much needed two run blast. It was the fact that he did it to a 100 plus mph fastball. Velocity had been killing Heyward ever since he put on Cubbie blue, but twice Heyward has been able to exact a lot of damage on mistake fastballs. Pitchers having to fear meatballs being crushed will work more carefully which should lead to more walks. The Cubs might finally have the top of the lineup envisioned in the winter before the 2016 season.
Hendricks is Lackey. Lackey is Hendricks.
Okay I am belaboring the comparison at this point, but it is meant as a true term of endearment when I write it here. Hendricks has figured out how to gut through the rough first inning and settle in to give his team a solid chance at winning a ballgame every night. The six innings meant the Cubs had back to back quality starts and also meant the bullpen was only needed for three innings. The outing could have been stronger without some Cardinaling in the middle innings for their third run, but Lester and Hendricks did exactly what was needed of them this important turn through the heart of the division.
Bottom of the Ninth, Two Outs
The Cardinals had the tying run to the plate and two runners in scoring position. The inning had been emblematic of the Cardinals performance, but it didn't matter as the Cubs elite closer Brandon Morrow was just one strike away from ending the game. A high breaking ball was thought to be good enough by Morrow but not by the umpire. Tommy Pham had worked the count to full. Morrow delivered an upper 90s fastball high and inside. Pham couldn't help but swing at ball four to move the Cubs back to a half game of the Brewers.
Bottom of the Ninth, No Outs
Yairo Munoz had the most Cardinal of Cardinal hits with a groundball single back up the middle. Kolten Wong dropped a single into shallow right field for the second hit, and the Cardinals were quickly in business against Morrow. Backyard Baseball character Greg Garcia grounded back to Morrow for the first out, but it meant the Cardinals fourth and fifth runs were in scoring position with just one gone. Morrow retired Matt Carpenter on swinging strikes for the second out which left just Tommy Pham between the Cubs and a series victory.
Top of the Ninth
Matt Bowman continued to pitch into the ninth inning. He retired the Cubs in order for just the second time a Cardinals pitcher had accomplished that feat in the game. Bowman retired five batters to save the rest of the Cardinals bullpen after falling behind by three.
Bottom of the Eighth
Pedro Strop is the most consistent reliever in modern Cubs history. He is probably the most consistent reliever since the modern usage of bullpens became en vogue. Strop has been very good for a long time, but I still get nervous every time he takes the mound against the Cardinals. It isn't a rational belief and the more he pitches the more his numbers stablize against the team from St. Louis. Tonight it was three quick outs to hand the baton to Morrow.
Top of the Eighth
Hard throwing Jordan Hicks continued on into the eighth inning. Ben Zobrist reached on a tough play but called error on shortstop Munoz. Hicks went to work against Heyward and got ahead with fastballs. However, Hicks tried to throw it past Heyward just one too many times as his 100 mph heat caught too much of the plate. Heyward hit what would have been the hardest home run of his in recent memory if it weren't for that other slightly bigger home run he hit. Hicks could only get one more out before giving way to Bowman to finish out the frame.
Bottom of the Seventh
I'm glad to see Steve Cishek in this game. It had been over 48 hours since he last appeared in a Cubs game and I think that is long enough to legally report him as missing. Cishek had the slimmest of margins to work with, but retired Thommy Pham and Yadier Molina to end the inning. Randy Rosario retired Matt Carpenter on a fly ball to start the frame.
Top of the Seventh
Sam Tuilalavalall--Tiuvalalli--Tuivailala was the second Cardinal hurler out of the bullpen. Anthony Rizzo greeted him with his first hit of the day. Willson Contreras moved Rizzo into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt fielded by the pitcher Sam Tuivailala. Mike Mattheny elected to walk Kyle Schwarber. Addison Russell hit a pop fly caught by the shortstop. The Cubs were in danger of letting a chance to break the 3-3 deadlock slip by the wayside. Ian Happ dropped a double down the right field line to score Rizzo giving the Cubs a 4-3 lead.
Bottom of the Sixth
Kyle Hendricks worked his final inning in the sixth. It started off poorly with Dexter Fowler reaching base yet again. This time it was Hendricks fourth walk of the game. Yairo Munoz dropped a single in front of Kyle Schwarber. Fowler decided to try for third and was easily gunned down by Schwarber for the first out of the inning. Munoz moved into second on the play but he remained planted there as Hendricks retired the next two batters. At worst, he would earn a no decision in his quality start. His night was done at that point.
Top of the Sixth
The Cubs were retired in order for the first time in the sixth inning. It was the first reliever that the Cardinals faced after chasing Carlos Martinez in just five innings. The name of the reliever was Austin Gomber. Felt a Cardinaling in the making at this point.
Top of the Fifth
Carlos Martinez was working with a lead for the second time in his outing. He promptly worked on giving it back by walking Kris Bryant to start the frame. Rizzo fouled out to the third baseman for the first out, but Contreras' bunt single moved the tying run into scoring position. Kyle Schwarber ripped a solid line drive up the middle to plate Bryant making it a 3-3 ballgame.
Bottom of the Fourth
Jedd Gyorko grounded out to Russell to start the inning. Dexter Fowler hit a solid single into right field, but Munoz dropped a sandwedge shot to give the Cardinals two runners on base. Hendricks struck out Kolten Wong, and that gave him a chance to escape with the game still tied after the Cubs had just scored. Carlos Martinez helped his own cause and put the Cardinals ahead 3-2 with a single just over Ben Zobrist.
Top of the Fourth
Addison Russell blasted a Carlos Martinez mistake to start the inning. That erased the deficit that Hendricks had dug with two outs in the first inning. Martinez pitched out of trouble frequently. The Cubs managed seven hits including Russell's long ball. He also walked another six batters while striking out five.
Top of the Third
Ben Zobrist reached base to lead off an inning again. This time it would count for something as Zobrist reached second on Bryant's walk and third on Rizzo's fielder's choice ground out. Contreras hit a groundball with some weird break that Matt Carpenter struggled to handle. That allowed Zobrist to score the Cubs first tally with two outs. Schwarber flew out to end the inning, but the lead was now just 2-1.
Bottom of the First
A one out walk to Tommy Pham was one of the signals that Kyle Hendricks was not at his absolute best. However, it looked like he would escape with no damage caused by the free pass with two fly outs sandwiching the four pitch mistake. Marcell Ozuna and his neon green sleeve, however, confirmed my diagnosis of full blown John Lackey disease. It is probably curable, but this is a pitcher that is still helping the Cubs win even at this level. If he finds the near Cy Young level again here the Cubs might have something.