Game Three of the NLDS between the Cardinals and the Cubs shifted to Wrigley Field on Monday night, with the advantage tilting to the Cubs not only because they split the first two games of the series in St. Louis but because their ace was taking the hill. While Michael Wacha certainly isn’t any kind of slouch, it would be difficult to argue that the Cubs didn’t have a significant edge with the white hot Jake Arrieta on the mound.
Despite a stiff wind blowing out at Wrigley, the first three innings played out as expected, with both Wacha and Arrieta pitching effectively. Arrieta pitched somewhat more to contact than usual, but still struck out three batters over the first three frames and limited the Cardinals output to a Jason Heyward double. Wacha wasn’t nearly as efficient, but with his fastball touching 94 MPH on the gun, he managed three punch-outs of his own. Kyle Schwarber opened the scoring for the Cubs in the second with an opposite field bomb on a change that Wacha left hanging a little bit too far over the plate. It was 1-0 Cubs after three innings, but given the strength of both offenses and the way the ball was carrying, it didn’t seem likely that this was going to be a pitchers’ affair.
Sure enough, the middle innings of the game turned into a slugfest. There were concerns entering the night that Wacha might not be able to hang with Arrieta, but it was the presumptive Cy Young winner who struggled first. He walked back-to-back hitters to open the fourth and after a Heyward whiff, Jhonny Peralta narrowly missed a homer, settling for an RBI double. A Baltimore Chop by Tommy Pham brought Matt Holliday home and the Cardinals had a 2-1 lead. Starlin Castro responded in the bottom of the fourth with the Cubs second home run of the night—another solo shot—and Arrieta looked like the top shelf ace he has been all year in the fifth, striking out the side after surrendering a single to Matt Carpenter. It was tied 2-2, but given who was on the mound, the Cardinals had to be happy that they were still in the game.
Wacha had mostly survived off of the fastball to this point, but was now going through the potent Cubs lineup for the third time. He induced a fly out from Dexter Fowler but then Jorge Soler reached base for the eighth consecutive time in the postseason with a single. Then the always-dangerous Kris Bryant came to the plate. Mike Matheny elected not to make a move to his bullpen, hoping that Wacha could get at least one more out. Wacha threw five consecutive fastballs to Bryant and generated a 3-2 count. The sixth fastball was a fat pitch up in the zone that Bryant deposited into the bleachers for the Cubs third home run of the night. 4-2 Cubs.
Now Matheny made his move, but Kevin Siegrist made the same mistake that Wacha did, trying to pump heat past Anthony Rizzo, who was waiting on a fastball, took advantage of the wind, and made Siegrist pay with the Cubs fourth home run of the evening, pushing the lead to 5-2. On many other nights with Arrieta on the hill the ballgame would be over. But Arrieta’s shutout inning in the fifth wasn’t a turning point. A single up the middle by Holliday was followed by a two-run shot by Jason Heyward and the Cards were back to within a run.
Arrieta picked up two outs but put the tying run on base when he hit pinch hitter Brandon Moss with a low pitch. Where Matheny may have waited too long, Joe Maddon didn’t. Despite Arrieta’s pedigree, he brought Clayton Richard in to face Kolten Wong and Richard responded with a weak ground out.
The Cubs weren’t done though. Chris Coghlan, who had entered the game in a double switch, singled, was sacrificed to second by Fowler and then brought home by a Jorge Soler home run, giving the Cubs five homers on the night to that point. This gave the Cubs more breathing room, and a Dexter Fowler solo shot in the top of the ninth pushed the lead to four. As much as Matheny’s non-decision in the fifth may have doomed St. Louis, his relief core didn’t do Matheny any favors. Siegrist, Seth Maness, Adam Wainwright, and Jonathan Broxton all surrendered a run for the Cardinals. No one behind Wacha was able to keep the game close enough for a late home run by Stephen Piscotty to make a difference.
The Cubs won on the backs of their powerful offense, but it was their unheralded bullpen that kept the game from becoming a crazy slugfest. Chicago’s unlikely trio of Richard, Trevor Cahill, and Travis Wood built a bridge to set-up man Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon. Even though Rondon surrendered the two-run shot to Piscotty, the yeoman’s work done by the Cubs’ bullpen made it irrelevant and allowed the Cubs to hold on for a wild 8-6 win.
As pivotal as the Cubs’ bullpen was on the field, the front office and the manager deserve at least some of the credit for this victory. Some teams would have discarded failed starters like Wood and/or failed to cull the waiver wire for acquisitions like Richard and Cahill. Some managers would have merely used Richard, Cahill, and Wood in mop up situations down the stretch, but Maddon has been managing with a playoff mentality since August and has used all three of these relievers in high leverage situations for the past two months. In a game where a world-beating ace was supposed to be the difference maker, it was a trio of castoffs who made the biggest difference on the mound, pushing the Cubs to a 2-1 series lead and giving them the opportunity to advance to the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night.