Cards struggle to support Wacha at Wrigley

Cards struggle to support Wacha at Wrigley

CHICAGO -- The Cubs had won their last four games by at least five runs, and needed to come from behind in all four. On Saturday, there were no late-inning heroics as they won their fifth in a row.

Albert Almora Jr. drove in two runs and Addison Russell delivered a pinch-hit homer to back Kyle Hendricks and lead the Cubs to a 4-1 victory over the Cardinals to improve to a season-high 16 games over .500.

With their 82nd win, the Cubs opened a five-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central and are assured of three straight seasons with a winning record for the first time since 2007-09. The Cubs also gained a game on the second-place Brewers, who are four games back after falling to the Marlins Saturday night.

Davis locks down the save

"We just have to try to forget this game and try to get one tomorrow," Cardinals starter Michael Wacha said. "We know every game is precious right now, and we just have to get back to winning some ballgames. We know that we have a lot of games left with the guys ahead of us, and it's up to us to go out there and win those games." 

Hendricks gave the bullpen a much-needed breather, throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings until Matt Carpenter connected on his 20th homer, ending Hendricks' day with two outs in the eighth. It was the right-hander's longest outing of the season, and the third longest by a Cubs starter.

"Everything was working from the side," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Hendricks, who has a 2.42 ERA in 11 starts since coming off the disabled list. "They were having bad takes. They were taking pitches that were called strikes. His fastball was the best he's had all year. ... His confidence could not be higher."

Maddon on Hendricks' performance

Carpenter's homer came off an 89-mph fastball, which apparently was Hendricks' hardest thrown pitch of the game. That's what teammate Javier Baez told him.

"It's good to feel strong, even at that last pitch," Hendricks said. "I still felt good. I still had plenty in the tank. That was my takeaway from today."

Said Carpenter: "[Hendricks] was the same guy he always is. He was on the corners with all his pitches, changing speeds, doing a good job of keeping us off balance, getting ahead, throwing strikes, getting soft contact. He threw the ball really well."

Carpenter's solo home run

Wacha was cruising until a 27-pitch fourth inning. He finished with three runs allowed over 5 2/3 innings. The right-hander came into the game 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last three outings, but he's now 1-6 in his last nine games against the Cubs, dating back to July 2015. That includes a start in the 2015 NL Division Series.

"I thought his stuff looked good," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Wacha. "It was unfortunate that we didn't have an opportunity to maybe put a mark on the board first. But Michael, I think, has been throwing very well lately, and he threw good enough for us to have a chance to get him a win."

That missed chance came in the third when, with the bases loaded, Cards two-hole hitter Tommy Pham grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Cards' season defined by struggles vs. rivals

Hendricks gets out of a jam

Wade Davis pitched the ninth for his 30th save in as many chances. Chicago has won 10 of its 14 games against St. Louis this season, including seven of eight at Wrigley Field.

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Opportunity knocks: Wacha needed just 25 pitches to get through the first three innings, but the Cubs made him work in the fourth. With one out, Anthony Rizzo singled to right and Willson Contreras walked. Almora and Ian Happ then hit back-to-back RBI singles, both coming off first-pitch fastballs, to open a 2-0 lead. 

Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler had a chance to reduce that damage when he fielded Almora's single and tried to throw out Contreras at third. Fowler's throw was in time, but it pulled Carpenter away from the bag. Contreras later came around to score.

"I had a chance. I had a real good chance," Fowler said. "I just threw it off line. You have to get an out right there."

Happ's RBI single

Fowler hit by pitch in first game back

Patience at the plate: With two outs in the fifth, Rizzo walked and Contreras then battled Wacha in an 11-pitch at-bat for another free pass. Almora followed, and, naturally, smacked the first pitch he saw to left field for an RBI double and a 3-0 lead. He added a one-out double off Cards reliever John Brebbia in the seventh. Almora normally doesn't start against right-handers, but he has seven hits -- including three doubles, a triple and a home run -- plus 10 RBIs over his last four games. And Saturday was his first start in that stretch.

"I came up in a couple crucial spots, and I just wanted to help the team," Almora said. "I'm just trying not to do too much and trying to see the ball in the zone and hit it as hard as I can."

Almora stays hot despite righty-righty matchup

Almora Jr.'s RBI double

Welcome back: The Cubs' highlight of the day came in the eighth when Russell, activated from the disabled list prior to the game, received a standing ovation before his first plate appearance since Aug. 2. He gave the crowd even more reason to cheer when he launched his first career pinch-hit home run, connecting on a 1-2 fastball from Tyler Lyons. The ball went 437 feet into the left-field bleachers, the second-longest homer of his young career. Russell had been sidelined with a right foot strain. He came out from the dugout for a curtain call after the homer, his 11th.

"Sometimes I surprise myself, too," Russell said. "I've been definitely working hard. I've been trying to prepare myself for the moment that just happened. I keep working and mentally and physically, game ready, I'll be fine."

Russell returns from DL with curtain-call HR

Statcast: Russell's 437-ft. HR

QUOTABLE
"Now we're going to need some help. We have to find a way to win tomorrow, and maybe the Brewers can help us out, and then we get another four games with [the Cubs] at home. We're not out of it yet, but we have to find a way to win tomorrow." -- Carpenter, on the Cards sitting five games behind the Cubs with five head-to-head games left

SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Davis is the 11th pitcher in Major League history to convert his first 30 save opportunities in a single season.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Jose Martinez singled with one out in the fourth, and Hendricks tried to pick him off at first. Martinez was called safe, but the Cubs challenged the ruling, and after a review, the call was overturned.

Hendricks picks off Martinez

WHAT'S NEXT
Cardinals: The Cardinals will close out their final regular-season trip to Wrigley Field with a 1:20 p.m. CT game on Sunday. Lance Lynn was bumped up in the rotation so that he could make this start against the division-leading Cubs, against whom he is 6-6 with a 4.07 ERA in 17 career appearances.

Cubs: Jose Quintana will make his 12th start for the Cubs in the series finale on Sunday. He's 6-3 with a 3.88 ERA so far with Chicago. Against the Cardinals, the lefty is 3-0 with a 2.60 ERA in three career starts. 

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Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.