There’s almost invariably good drama in two division rivals playing each other to end the season. And there’s extremely good drama in two division rivals playing each other for seven of their final 10 contests when both teams are in the race for October. This is just what we have between the Cubs (who entered today tied for the second wild-card, three games out of first place in the NL Central) and Cardinals (who have narrowly held first place for most of the last month), and Thursday’s game in Chicago—the first of the aforementioned seven—may be best framed as the opening act of a grand dramatic saga. The stakes are high. The narratives are well-established. Any move has the power to potentially twist not just the day, but the entire season. And the tension has seven games to build. (Plus the Brewers are waiting in the wings as they try to engineer their own trip to the postseason.) So let’s start dissecting the dramatic devices and characters from Thursday…
The Returning Hero
Good storyline: A star makes a surprise return after an injury that reportedly had the potential to rule him out for the year. Better storyline: A star makes a surprise return after an injury that reportedly had the potential to rule him out for the year, walks up to the music of The Undertaker and hits a home run to tie the game, 1-1, in the third. Hello, Anthony Rizzo:
It’s always useful when there’s one character whose own story conveniently embodies what you need to know about the greater narrative. Enter Jack Flaherty and the Cardinals.
On Thursday, Flaherty was near flawless. Rizzo’s homer was his only run allowed over eight innings; he allowed only three other baserunners and struck out eight. In a second half that’s been full of gems from the 23-year-old, this was among his finest. And to continue the line of “as goes Flaherty, so go the Cardinals”—after his eight strong frames, the team looked like it was in a strong place to win, entering the ninth up 4-1.
Jack Flaherty's last 79.0 IP: 0.80 ERA— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) September 20, 2019
The Exquisite Twists of This At-Bat
Which led to Carlos Martinez on the mound for St. Louis—who started the ninth by walking Nicholas Castellanos and giving up a single to Kris Bryant. This put the tying run to the plate in the form of Kyle Schwarber, with two on and nobody out.
He took the first pitch, the second, the third. And then, on 3-0—he swung at a slider that may have been inside, swung at a slider that was definitely inside, swung at a fastball that was low, and swung on a high slider for good measure. As the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, from 3-0, he’d struck out.
Everything About This
Schwarber was followed by Ben Zobrist, who doubled to drive in a run and was replaced by pinch-runner Javy Báez—another edition of the Returning Hero, as a hairline fracture in his left thumb meant that Báez, too, had previously been reported as likely to stay sidelined until October. But here he was, on the bases, representing the tying run on second, with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Willson Contreras was at the plate, with the tension turned all the way up.
Contreras quickly went down 0-2, whiffing on one pitch and fouling off two more. And then he delivered the genre of hit that lends itself most easily to drama—a dribbling grounder in the infield’s no-man’s-land. It doesn’t have the punch of a home run. It doesn’t create the questions of a ball in the gap. But it does have the sensational effect of a play that unfolds in real time as if it is being shown in slo-mo, opening up time to forecast a thousand individual outcomes, terrible and beautiful and unthinkable, and play them out next to each other.
The outcome here was in the hands of Martinez, diving off the mound to field the ball and make an unbalanced throw home. It didn’t work. Bryant scored; Báez advanced to third. Martinez was pulled.
Which led to the highest leverage at-bat of the night: Jason Heyward at the plate, down one, with two on and still just one out.
He grounded out to second. Báez scored, and the game was tied. The Cubs had the win expectancy in their favor for the first time since the early innings:
The Surprise Extra Act
To the 10th!
The Unlikely Savior
Matt Carpenter’s season has not gone according to plan. After a brilliant 2018 that saw him bust out in the second half and garner down-ballot consideration for MVP, he’s struggled in 2019 with an unfortunate combination of injury and lackluster performance. Brought on Thursday in the sixth inning as an injury replacement for second baseman Kolten Wong, he wasn’t exactly a likely candidate for the game-winning hit. Until he was:
The Stage For Friday
Chicago is now out of a playoff spot (Milwaukee won on Thursday, nudging itself into sole possession of the second wild-card) for the first time in months. The Cubs fall to third place for the first time since April. And while St. Louis has a bit of breathing room (three games ahead of Milwaukee, four ahead of Chicago), it also may have to go on without Wong:
Shildt says that Kolten Wong has a mild strain in his hamstring. He will get an MRI in the morning. We'll likely find out more tomorrow as to what the severity and timetable is. #STLCards— Anne Rogers (@anne__rogers) September 20, 2019
It’s good drama. And there’ll be more.