ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- By the time Anthony Rizzo hit his 31st home run in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s 7-0 Cardinal loss - or even his 30th homer in the fifth - the game was already over.
Carlos Martinez, the best pitcher on the Cardinal staff and only reliable stopper in the rotation, had long been undone by the incomprehensible, unstoppable force known as the 2016 Chicago Cubs; a wildly talented team seemingly chosen by the baseball fates themselves for victory.
Martinez struck out nine, looking all the part of an elite starter through the early innings of Wednesday’s finale.
“He came out of the gates really as good as we’ve seen him. He had a good rhythm and feel for all of his pitches,” Mike Matheny said. “Then just kind of guys grinding a couple at bats on him.”
The Cubs are a relentless unit of self-assured machines. They have star power up and down any lineup they deploy, and even when that force is matched by an equal presence on the mound, they seem to coax the improbable out of the few that are mediocre.
The game’s first run came courtesy of a Jon Lester RBI, the sixth of the 32-year-old’s career. Lester spent most of his years in the American League, having only made 178 plate appearances coming into the day.
David Ross supplied the next two, hitting a home run to center field in the fifth inning to push the Cubs ahead 3-0. Ross, who fittingly is on the Cubs roster primarily to catch Lester, is a career .229 hitter with a slugging percentage of .422. The man on base when he went yard? former Cardinal Jason Heyward, who is hitting just .226.
While Bryant, Rizzo and Zobrist were striking out and rolling over pitches for ground outs, the dregs of the Cubs lineup were doing damage.
“I worked really hard,” Martinez said, noting his nine strikeouts. “But there are nine batters in a lineup and they’re there for a reason.”
“He was pretty hard to predict today, but good hitters will figure out a way to put a good at bat together and maybe sit and ambush a certain pitch,” Matheny added. “He looked really good. He’s continuing to show the kind of stuff we need him to have, but there’s times you just don’t get away with many mistakes.”
There is perhaps no better avatar for the power shift within the division than Wednesday afternoon. The Cardinals threw their best weapon at a problem, he did everything he could to solve the toughest aspects of it, and it wasn’t enough. The Cubs are like a vast ocean swallowing up a listing ship. Their pressure is unrelenting, forcing every weld and rivet to hold perfectly if the vessel is going to stay afloat. The Cardinals simply didn’t have the structural integrity to hold them off.
While Martinez was doing his best to neutralize the National League’s best lineup, St. Louis’ offense offered no support. They managed three hits on the day and never got a runner to second base. They twice were also caught stealing by Ross, who ranks 49th among all catchers in cutting down runners. Worse, Cardinal runners were being held by Lester (who very infamously has the yips when throwing over to first base).
Rizzo’s second blast in the ninth was almost cathartic; pushing the lead to 7-0 and ending any lingering drama for the afternoon. The Cardinals, perhaps out of sheer defiance, have managed to play the Cubs to an 8-8 draw this season thus far. Their ability to avoid sweeps at the hands of their rival has kept them in the playoff hunt, but their failures to capitalize on lesser competition have made each remaining game with Chicago crucial. This week, they didn’t look up to the task.
St. Louis scored just one run in its two losses this series, managing just four hits in those games. Their only victory - one that kept Chicago from clinching the NL Central at Busch Stadium - came thanks to an improbable, careening performance from their top rookie arm.
The Cubs will clinch the division this week, enjoying a shower of champagne while the Cardinals watch scoreboards and try to scrape together wins in the chase for a Wild Card spot, one in which they currently find themselves trailing two other teams.
It’s unusual territory for a franchise so used to being the class of its division and one riding a string of playoff appearances long enough to make fans forget what it feels like to have no stake in October.
But it’s one fans have had ample time for which to prepare. The Cardinals will finish with a losing record at home, and now have a stretch of at least two months without winning a series at Busch. They have struggled to stay in the race all season, despite their best efforts. It’s not that the team is uninspired, or that they are being utterly failed by leadership. This is just 2016 in St. Louis. It’s a lot less fun on the other side of the coin.