ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- In the battle for the NL Central, the Cubs not only hold the early advantage in record, but struck the first head-to-head blow against their rivals Monday night.
In front of a sold out St. Louis crowd, Chicago kept the Cardinals in check before they pulled away late for a 5-0 win to open the series.
For much of the game, which ripped through five innings in just over an hour, it was a two-man show. John Lackey and Mike Leake pitched like they had a flight to catch, barreling through innings at such an efficient pace opposing hitters barely had time to catch their breath in the batter’s box.
Leake retired 10 Cubs in a row from the second inning into the fifth, keeping pace with Lackey, who finished the game one strikeout shy of his career high of 12. Each scoreless inning, each frustrated hitter, the tension built inside Busch Stadium. After the catharsis of vehemently booing Jason Heyward wore off, Cardinal fans began to murmur and groan with every empty-handed at bat.
In the bottom of the fifth the Birds took them to the edge of elation, but came away empty handed after a major Chicago blunder.
Kolten Wong slapped a one-out single and moved to third after Aledmys Diaz doubled to the left field corner. The speedy second baseman then took off down the line with Leake at the plate for a suicide squeeze attempt, but the Cardinal pitcher missed the bunt and left Wong exposed.
"I probably could have put some bat on it if i got a little bit lower with my legs," Leake explained. "It surprised me that [Wong] was able to get back."
Improbably, Wong made it back into third base safely, snatching back what should have been a sure out for Chicago and sending Lackey into a fit of anger. When Leake blasted a would-be homer just foul, it looked like the Cardinals had finally rattled their former pitcher.
Instead, Lackey regained composure, struck out Leake and Matt Carpenter, and walked off to chorus of discontent from the stands.
"We had a couple of opportunities not a lot," said Mike Matheny. "Trying to squeeze one in there earlier would have been nice to get something going positive for us. But we've got to make the plays. That's pretty standard in a tight game like that. And usually it opens the door for a big inning and that's exactly what happened."
After failing to capitalize on an extra out, the Cardinals watched the tie game evaporate in the sixth. The inning’s first batter, Dexter Fowler, sent the fourth pitch he saw screaming into the right field seats to give Chicago a 1-0 lead. The advantage seemed to invigorate Lackey, who breezed through the bottom half in just nine pitches.
Leake’s support faltered behind him in the seventh when, after back-to-back singles, Diaz fumbled a hard hit ball before throwing it into the camera well behind first base. The errant throw scored one run and moved two men into scoring position. A sacrifice fly and a single later, the Cubs had a 4-0 lead.
"I'm really disappointed in that play," said Diaz who said the error was exacerbated because Leake threw such a good game. "It was a hard ball. I was not able to catch the ball on the first hop and I hurried up to make at least one out at first base but the thing is it's part of the game."
Another run in the eighth gave them five, and the Cardinal offense was unable to muster a threat in the final three innings. All evening long, hitters were unable to wrest control of the game’s tempo away from Lackey, who struck out at least 10 hitters for the 20th time in his career.
The victory moved the Cubs to 10-3, making them baseball’s first team with double digit wins. It also gives them a three-game lead over both the Cardinals and the Pirates. St. Louis will get a chance to even the series Tuesday, when Jaime Garcia takes on Jason Hammel. Garcia is coming off one the best starts of his career, a one-hit complete game shutout in which he struck out 13 Milwaukee Brewers.