Only one thought ran through Adbert Alzolay’s head as he watched his last pitch fly toward the grass beyond Busch Stadium’s center-field wall.
“How did he hit that ball?”
Alzolay located his 1-2 fastball up and away to St. Louis Cardinals pinch-hitting lefty Alec Burleson, exactly where the Cubs closer wanted it with two outs. Burleson instead barreled the ball to dead center, sending Mike Tauchman drifting toward the yellow 400-foot marker emblazoned on the wall.
He perfectly timed his jump to rob Burleson of a walk-off two-run homer for the final out. Tauchman’s game-saving catch in the 3-2 victory Friday night secured the Cubs’ season-high seventh consecutive win and moved them above .500 for the first time since May 6.
The Cubs dugout emptied onto the field when Tauchman barrel-rolled off the ground and pulled the ball out of his glove, setting off a celebration. Miguel Amaya hopped out of his crouch behind the plate while Alzolay pounded his chest toward the rookie catcher and then greeted Tauchman with a high-five and hug on the infield dirt. Nico Hoerner could only stand there and take it all in after minutes earlier he had provided to that point the game’s defining defensive sequence with a nifty double play for the first outs of the ninth.
“Probably the most dramatic single play I’ve been a part of in the big leagues,” Hoerner said of Tauchman’s catch. “As far as just the game and where we’re at in the season and obviously pretty big implications, just a pretty amazing moment.”
Initially, as he tracked the ball, Tauchman didn’t think it would get that close to the wall. But as soon as he felt the warning track dirt beneath his feet, Tauchman knew he had 2½ to 3 steps before he needed to jump.
“As outfielders we’re taught get to the wall and then you have time to make the adjustments you need to,” Tauchman said. “So you have that internal clock or feeling of, I’ve got to go up now and it just coincided with the ball coming down. I didn’t know I was right at the wall until I turned to catch the ball, but just happy to make the play for the team in that spot.”
In the ninth inning, with the Cubs clinging to a one-run lead, the Cardinals challenged them on the four balls put in play with expected batting averages of .630, .430, .490 and .490. A team built on defense up the middle saved the day.
The stellar double play Hoerner turned with Dansby Swanson with two on and nobody out in the ninth set up Tauchman’s heroics. Hoerner made his spin-turn and throw look easy as his momentum took him away from Swanson at second base on Brendan Donovan grounder. It was the hardest-hit out of the game at 104.4 mph off Donovan’s bat.
“It was a huge defensive inning for the team,” Tauchman said. “Adbert’s been so good in so many spots this year and that’s a tough situation to bear down and make really good pitches. A total team effort.”
If the Cubs are going to make a run to the postseason in the next two months, they will need than their stars to carry them there. The little things added up Friday with contributions from a couple guys who have experienced more lows than highs lately. Patrick Wisdom put the Cubs on the board in the fifth with his 18th home run of the year to cut the Cardinals’ lead in half. Swanson’s sacrifice fly and Trey Mancini’s two-out RBI single gave them the lead in the sixth.
Hayden Wesneski, called up before the game as the opener, and Drew Smyly combined for 6⅓ innings. The lone damage came from Lars Nootbaar’s two home runs, one off each pitcher.
For the last three months, Cubs players had been adamant the group was better than what their record indicated. Their winning streak provides more tangible evidence of that to the front office ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline.
“This game is hard, it’s hard for everybody — it’s hard for pitchers, it’s hard for hitters,” Smyly said. “It’s so unique that everyone can feel like they’re struggling at the same time, but you just have to come together as a team and try to do your job and do your part.
“We’ve been saying all along that this team is pretty good and can win against anybody and it’s just nice to get those results as a team and reel off some wins and put us in a good position.”
With their victory Friday night versus the Cardinals, the Cubs (51-50) clinched their first season-series win against them since 2017. They sit 3½ back of the final wild-card spot and 4½ games out of first place in the division.
Manager David Ross bluntly put the game in perspective: “We don’t win that game early in the season.”
“When things are going good, stuff like that — guys are playing with a lot of focus and concentration,” Ross said. “There’s no quit in this group.”
The Cubs are in this position, finally with a winning record, because of a slow climb that began nearly seven weeks ago. They sat a season-high 10-games under .500, falling to 26-36 when the Angels completed the sweep in Anaheim June 8. Beginning the next day, the Cubs have gone 26-15 and their .634 winning percentage is tied for third-best in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies behind only the Atlanta Braves (27-12/.692) and the Cincinnati Reds (28-14/.666).
This marks just the third time in franchise history (1968 and 1996) in which the Cubs were at least 10 games under .500 only to once again get back to the .500 mark, according to team historian Ed Hartig.
“We’re in such a time in baseball of trying to understand and evaluate and analyze everything and sometimes things just line up and happen and you just roll with it and enjoy it, right?” Hoerner said. “Like, we’ve had some games we probably played better earlier in the year that we lost and a lot of things we could have done better today, but at the end of the day we won and in this league, that result matters a lot.”