9th inning rally falls short as Cubs lose to rival Cards
Jeff Curry - USA Today Sports

9th inning rally falls short as Cubs lose to rival Cards

by - Senior Writer -

ST. LOUIS - It's hard to believe that the Chicago Cubs (27-25) were once nine games above .500 this season and looking like a legitimate playoff contender. Keep in mind, they got off to a great start, all while dealing with a rash of injuries and a struggling bullpen during the first month of the season. Then the calendar turned to May, where the Cubs have not only struggled but are on the verge of falling to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season.

Gearing up for what could be one of the biggest weeks of the Cubs season thus far, Chicago kicked off their road trip at Busch Stadium with a matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals (25-27).

There was a point during the season when the Cardinals were in last place in the NL Central and on the verge of having an even worse season than last year. Then came their past 11 games, and the Cardinals have won nine of those 11 to move into third place. That includes Saturday's season opener against the Cubs, where the Cardinals played from behind late to score four runs in the eighth inning before holding off the Cubs in the ninth 7-6.

Following their rainout on Friday, Craig Counsell elected to do some shuffling with his rotation and took Shota Imanaga out of this weekend to move him to the Brewers season. That put Jameson Taillon on the mound for his scheduled start against Miles Mikolas. Taillon wasn't as sharp as he needed to be, but he did a great job limiting the damage as he pitched into the sixth with a 3-2 lead.

“They got some hits on some pretty good pitches," Taillon said. "Just made me work for everything. I kept the team in it -- proud of that. But it was definitely a grind.”

He came one pitch away from getting through the sixth only to see Maysn Winn come through with a game-tying RBI double as Taillon settled with a no-decision. That was a tough pill to swallow, especially considering how much struggled in the first few innings before settling in, as the Cardinals had baserunners in each of the first three innings against the right-hander.

For the most part, he was able to escape those jams, but after a pair of singles from Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar put runners on the corners, the Cardinals were threatening to break through first. When the Cardinals' offense is at its best, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado drive in runs, which was the case during that third innings. The Goldschmidt groundout put the Cardinals in front before Arenado added a single to make things 2-0.

Given how Mikolas pitched through three innings (25 pitches), you had to think that two runs would hold up as the Cubs' offense looked lifeless again. With Mike Tauchman leading the fourth off with a single, the Cubs had the leadoff man on base only to have the following two hitters retired. On the verge of coming up empty again, Christopher Morel extended the inning with a walk before Nico Hoerner delivered for a double off the top of the wall to tie things up 2-2.

Hoerner would come home to score on a few pitches later as the Michael Busch single gave the Cubs their first lead of the game, 3-2.

The Cubs made that lead hold until the sixth inning when Winn cashed in with a massive RBI double to chase Taillon from the game and tied things up 3-3.

“We had a pretty good night offensively,” Counsell said. “We had chances -- other chances, too. We definitely created more pressure tonight.”

For as bad as the Cardinals have played at times, their back end of the bullpen has been one of the best in baseball, with Andre Kittredge being one of those great arms. However, even the best pens in baseball have an off night, and with a rare error from Goldschmidt at first to allow Busch to reach, the door was open for the Cubs to strike again.

That error was followed by a Dansby Swanson single to put a pair of runners on, only to have Patrick Wisdom rip one down the third base line for an RBI double to put the Cubs back on top 4-3.

Chicago had a chance to push home another run in that inning, but the Cardinals escaped without further damage, keeping them within striking distance.

When you look at the Cubs bullpen this season, the endless struggles have played a role in the team's losses early on. However, over the past three weeks, the Cubs bullpen has been the best in baseball, which is very puzzling to believe. Luke Little looked as good as he has all season in relief of Taillon, but for the Cubs to finish this one off, it would be up to their best reliever, Mark Leiter Jr., to take care of things in the eighth.

Entering the game with a 0.90 ERA across 20 innings, Leiter has been the best reliever in the pen since the start of the season. A big reason for that has been his ability to neutralize lefties with one of the best splitters in the game. There have been times this season when he didn't have a feel for that splitter, and this was one of those games where Alec Burleson and Nolan Gorman opened the bottom half of the eighth with a pair of singles.

Capable of working out of jams like this in the past, Leiter Jr retired the next two hitters to once again put him in a position to escape trouble. That set the tone for Oliver Marmol to go to his bench, where Chris Carpenter was called to pinch hit. With 95 career RBIs against the Cubs, Carpenter is no stranger to breaking the Cubs heart and he did that again as his single to right tied things up as Burleson just beat Miguel Amaya's tag at the plate.

A Donovan single and Nootbaar triple followed that Carpenter hit as the Cardinals pushed across four runs off Leiter in the eighth to take a 7-4 lead into the ninth with Ryan Helsley set to close things out. With an ERA under 1.4 and 15 for 16 in saves, Helsley has emerged as one of the game's best closers, but don't tell that to the Cubs, as Swanson and Nick Madrigal opened things up with a pair of singles.

Considering how the Cubs had three singles in the eight only to come away empty, this was a chance they couldn't waste as Ian Happ nearly tied the game with a flyout to deep center. That brought the top of the order to the plate as Tauchman kept the line moving with a single to right and pulled the Cubs within 7-5.

Like Happ earlier in the inning Seiya Suzuki made great contact off of Helsley only to have his ball die on the track and had the Cubs down to their final out. With Cody Bellinger at the plate, this game was far from over, and with one quick swing, Bellinger turned on the Helsely heater and ripped it into right field to make things 7-6 and brought Morel to the plate. Known for having several big moments this season, Morel could give the Cubs the lead, but Helsley had other ideas as Morel bounced out to end the inning, and their comeback bid fell short.

“I really thought we were going to pull that out,” Taillon said. “That was pretty incredible. It’s one of those things where we lost, but hopefully that’s something we can take forward and build off.”

The Cubs had 12 hits in the game, with Tauchman, Hoerner, and Bellinger having two hits. Miguel Amaya was the only starter without a hit in the game. With the loss, the Cubs have now lost three straight for the first time this season and will look to salvage a split on Sunday when Javier Assad takes the ball against Sonny Gray on Sunday night.

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