The Chicago Cubs on Monday night were one strike away from tormenting me with their third 2-1 loss in the three games I have attended so far this season at Wrigley Field. Though the Cubs had the potential tying run on 3rd base and the potential winning run in scoring position on 2nd, the situation wasn’t promising.
On the mound for the Cards was closer Jason Motte, a fire-balling right-hander who had saves in all three of his previous opportunities this April. At the plate for the Cubs was backup third baseman Joe Mather, a journeyman (and former Cardinal) who has played nearly seven times more games in the minors than the majors during his 12-year professional career.
After taking the first two pitches for strikes, Mather battled the count to 2-2. And then this happened…
Mather made solid contact and drove the ball up the middle, well out of reach of any of the Cardinals’ infielders. Bryan LaHair and Geovany Soto raced around with the decisive runs that gave the North Siders a 3-2 win.
The victory, the Cubs’ first walk-off win this season, was made sweeter by the fact that it came against the archrival St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series champions. It didn’t instantly erase the fact that the Cubs are off to an awful start to the 2012 season, with a record of 5 wins and 12 losses, or that they still are in last place in the National League Central Division, 6 games behind first-place St. Louis (11-6).
Still, for one night, a clutch hit by an unexpected hero gave fans who had endured yet another chilly April game a chance to sing the team’s victory anthem, “Go Cubs Go.”
Apart from Mather’s game-winning hit, the game’s most important at-bat is not something that will jump out of the box score. LaHair, whose .361 average makes him one of the few Chicago hitters who is not struggling in the early going, had the night off as the regular first baseman because he bats left and the Cardinals started tough left-hander Jaime Garcia. Batting as a pinch-hitter with one out and none on in the 9th, LaHair worked out a walk on a 3-2 pitch by Motte.
But the reason LaHair was able to stroll to first base was that he engaged in a classic, 12-pitch battle with Motte, fouling off six consecutive fastballs with the count full before drawing ball four on a 98 mile per hour heater. Although Soto, the Cubs’ starting catcher, is struggling mightily at the plate — batting .128 with one home run and one run batted in over 13 games played — Motte walked him on four pitchers. Pinch hitter Steve Clevenger grounded out to first, but the runners moved into scoring position, another key “little thing” that made a big difference in the outcome.
Until the winning rally, the highlight of the game may have been this…
…. the flags hanging limply on a virtually breeze-less night. Compared to the two previous games I attended, when gales blowing off Lake Michigan turned Wrigley into a walk-in freezer, it was almost comfortable Monday night. Almost.
The Cubs grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first with a small-ball rally made up of infield hits by Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro, and a sacrifice fly by Alfonso Soriano.
Matt Garza, the Cubs’ pitching ace, threw well enough to win, giving up just four hits and three walks in seven innings. But unfortunately, two of the hits — an infield single by Skip Schumaker and a double down the left-field line by Matt Holliday — put runners on second and third with no one out in the 4th.
The Cardinals didn’t exactly bring out the heavy lumber, but a slow groundout to the right side of the infield and a sacrifice fly were enough to cash in the runners and give the Cards a one-run lead that held up almost to the end of the game.