All it took for the St. Louis Cardinals to do something they hadn’t done in the last four years was to do something they hadn’t done in the last 95 — sweep the Chicago Cubs in a four-game series at Wrigley Field, capped off by a 3-2 victory on Sunday afternoon which sent the Cardinals back to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
The players on the field Sunday spent the day dodging raindrops in much the same way the Cardinals have for the duration of the season. When the skies truly opened up after the game, there was no one left to cover an abandoned field that now seems unlikely to see another inning of baseball until 2020.
“Another hard fought, gritty, gutty game,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “Just relentless on our part, and that’s the way we play baseball. It’s the way we compete. Just a great ballgame.”
The drops on the dirt-turned-mud were less tidy than those of champagne which were poured in the visitors’ clubhouse.
Opting against a raucous celebration that might make for stellar social media content, the Cardinals instead had a private toast that was poured from bottles covered in labels which bore the team’s roster and Major League Baseball’s postseason logo.
The Cardinals can see where they’ve gotten, and they know it’s not as far as they want to go.
“Every baseball player’s goal, you’re just trying to chase that World Series,” said José Martínez, whose leadoff ninth inning triple started the winning rally and disrupted Cubs starter Yu Darvish’s bid for a complete game. “Excited for this group. This is a great group of guys, man. And we’re just gonna go out there and try to do our thing.”
“We want to make sure we appreciate what we accomplished and not take it lightly,” Shildt said. “We’re in the postseason. But we’ve got our sights set on clinching this division. That’s really where our head’s at. But we had a nice toast about it and felt good about it, and now we move forward.”
The Elias Sports Bureau determined that these Cubs were the second team in Major League history to be swept in a four-game series at home while losing each game by one run. It hadn’t happened since Cleveland achieved the feat against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1919. The pitcher who lost the first game of that series was named George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas, who nearly matched Darvish’s outstanding performance, agreed that the ninth inning rally felt inevitable.
“In a one-run game or almost any game where we can tie things up with the swing of a bat, you can always kind of feel that energy building,” Mikolas said. “I think what we’ve done to them the last couple days, I don’t think it really mattered who they put out there. I think we were coming back in that ninth anyway.”
Third baseman Tommy Edman opted for the more ethereal explanation.
“It kind of seems like we’ve got that magic going,” Edman said. “I think at any point we know we’re not out of it, just like we showed the past four days.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, facing the end of his contract and likely the end of his tenure in Chicago, spent the weekend reaching for his own magic wand, but kept coming up only with sticks.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo, expected to be out for the remainder of the regular season, made a dramatic, last-minute return to Thursday’s lineup and gutted through four starts with limited mobility and in great pain.
Javy Báez, recovering from a broken thumb, was tapped for a crucial last chance at bat in Saturday’s game which ended in a strikeout.
Darvish, a prized free agent acquisition who’s finally starting to play up to his contract, was allowed to bat in Sunday’s eighth inning in order to pitch the ninth, in part because Maddon had minimal trust in a foundering bullpen.
None of Maddon’s tricks bore a treat. The Cardinals won four games with a reliever as the pitcher of record in each – Andrew Miller, Ryan Helsley, John Gant, and Tyler Webb.
The Cardinals eschewed the Hail Mary. Where the Cubs found cause to leap, they grinded. And simplified.
“It’s something Tony [LaRussa] would say,” Shildt recalled. “The harder something is, the simpler you make it. This game can be a hard game. We’re gonna be together, first and foremost.”
“This group’s close. We’re gonna stay together, we’re gonna do it together, we’re gonna grow together.”
On Shildt’s desk sat a flute of champagne, still half full. Waiting to be finished, just as the Cardinals see their work.