One pitch, a breaking ball that didn't get down enough, was the difference between a shutout win and a shutdown loss for St. Louis. Jacque Jones hammered a full-count offering from Braden Looper into the stands in left field, giving the Cubs a 2-1 win and ending the Cardinals' season-high five-game winning streak. Albert Pujols cranked a solo homer for the visitors' only run.
"Their big hit was bigger than our big hit," said manager Tony La Russa. "It was a really well-played game."
It had been a week since the Redbirds met up with the kind of starting pitching they saw on Friday, and the difference was evident. Hard-throwing lefty Rich Hill quieted the St. Louis bats, holding every Cards hitter not named Pujols to one hit over seven innings. Pujols singled and drilled his 26th long ball of the year, but his teammates couldn't solve Hill.
The Cardinals fell to three games out of first place in the National League Central, while Chicago pulled into a tie with Milwaukee atop the division. After a sweep of the flagging Brewers at Miller Park, the Cards found the degree of difficulty had definitely increased at Wrigley on Friday.
The atmosphere felt like pennant-race baseball, and despite the defeat, St. Louis relished the chance to play a game like this one.
"It's awesome," Pujols said. "You get the fans involved and everything. To us, these games are almost like postseason because we're so close in the race."
The game turned on three plays, each of which went in Chicago's favor. In the fifth, with the scoreboard still free of runs and Yadier Molina on first, Brendan Ryan smacked what may have been the hardest-hit ball by a Cardinal all day. He sent a drive deep to straightaway center, but Jones chased it down, crashing into the wall as he made the catch. The speedy Ryan likely would have gone at least to third if the ball had dropped, but instead the inning came to an end.
"Any time I can get on base, we get the top of the order coming up and things can get rolling there," Ryan said. "If [Jones] doesn't get to that, it maybe caroms off the wall, and if I don't get the red light, I'm not stopping. Anything can happen there. Unfortunately, he's got some speed."
Pujols went deep in the sixth, giving St. Louis a brief 1-0 lead, but Jones turned things around in the bottom half of the inning. Following Ryan Theriot's single, he pounded his fifth home run of the season into the bleachers to make it 2-1.
"I need to make a better pitch there," Looper said. "You don't want to walk him because Derrek Lee is on deck, who's one of the better hitters in the National League, but you've still got to make a better pitch than that. I think if I make my pitch there, I've got a good chance to get him out. But I left it up and he definitely made me pay."
If the Cubs had the biggest hit and the biggest play, the Cardinals had the biggest miss.
Pujols was given one more opportunity to break the hearts of Cubs fans, and came up just short. After pinch-hitter Rick Ankiel walked in the eighth, putting two men on with two outs, Pujols barely missed a 2-0 fastball from Bobby Howry. He popped up to second base, ending the threat, and closer Ryan Dempster tossed a 1-2-3 ninth to end the game.
"Howry got into a tough situation right there, but he got out," Pujols said. "He made a good pitch to [me] and I popped it up. A good pitch to hit. It was a pitch to hit, and I feel bad I let my team down. But it's going to happen. I told Looper, 'Sorry bro, I got a good pitch to hit and I let you down.'"
The two old rivals meet three more times over the weekend, so the Cards have a slim chance to leave Chicago with a share of first place. But notice has been served that if they want to keep climbing the standings, they'll have to be at their best and have some things fall their way.
"We're playing good baseball," Looper said. "Obviously we didn't score as many runs today as we have in the last few days, but the guys were up there battling. And the starter for them pitched a great game. Sometimes that happens in baseball."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.