The Chicago Cubs don’t want to have to be sellers at the trade deadline. They feel, with a few hot streaks, they can make a run in the National League Central. A sweep of the division-leading Cardinals would be an uplifting start in that direction. They could accomplish that feat Sunday night and build an extraordinary amount of confidence in doing so. But missed opportunities hurt them considerably in their efforts. Lucky for them, their rivals struggled to make the most of their chances as well.

The series finale was very eventful. An inning didn’t go by without some sort of threat. Only five half innings were tossed perfectly, and unfortunately for the Cubs, they were at the plate during three of them. Still, despite having a few quiet frames, it looked as if they would come out on top.

The chaos began in the first inning, with Cardinals power-hitting outfielder Matt Holliday attempting to steal second. A runner, recently activated Ryan Ludwick, was on third-base, so the thinking was for Holliday to force a throw down to second base and distract the infielders as well as catcher Geovany Soto long enough for Ludwick to swiftly sprint home for the game’s first run. Chicago saw right through that. As 20-year old shortstop Starlin Castro caught Soto’s throw, he ran Holliday back to first base momentarily then fired back to the catcher, who easily tagged the slow-footed Ludwick out at the plate. The first tense situation and the first opportunity missed. There would be many more of both.

The Cardinals made up for their botched first inning by breaking through against Cubs righthander Ryan Dempster, playing two runs on RBI-singles by Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan. Dempster, who hasn’t received much run support in his career when facing St. Louis, hoped his team’s bats would back him.

A runner was in scoring position in the third with one out, but nothing came of that. Different stories were written in the fourth and fifth, however. Ever since Chicago has placed rookies Tyler Colvin and Castro atop the batting order, they have averaged seven runs per game. It appeared they may have been on that track again. Power hitter and longtime Cub continued his revitalized July, socking a double off Chris Carpenter to begin the fourth and scoring moments later on a single by Marlon Byrd, who has been one of the better Cubs players this season.

They took the lead the following inning as Dempster pitched a second scoreless frame. A triple by Ryan Theriot that allowed Soto to rumble home and a clutch two-out single by Castro gave Chicago the advantage. It was a playoff atmosphere at Wrigley. The Cubs certainly weren’t acting like a team nine games back. They were playing the Cardinals. If they were 20 games out they still would have been up for the rivalry’s latest installment.

With the crowd buzzing, the great Albert Pujols stepped to the plate to begin the sixth inning. He was frustrated with his mechanics in batting practice, shaking his head after a few swings. Orel Hershiser, announcing ESPN’s telecast, pitied the next team that had to face Pujols. King Albert didn’t want to wait that long to take out his anger, though. Whatever glitch that was in his mechanics before the game was gone, as everything clicked with one oh-so powerful swing. Dempster fired a fastball into the heart of the plate, right in the wheelhouse of the best hitter in the game. Then he watched it catapult off his bat and zoom into the left-field seats, leaving Cubs fans groaning and Cardinals fans joyous.

St. Louis soon had the chance to break the tie Pujols was responsible for securing, but their two-out rally was thwarted by a brilliant throw by Byrd. Schumaker doubled with two out, and, playing percentages, catcher Yadier Molina was intentionally walked to bring up Carpenter. This nearly backfired, as Carpenter stroked a single up the middle to a charging Byrd. The center-fielder threw a frozen rope that two-hopped beyond the mound and smack into Soto’s glove. Schumaker didn’t stand a chance, and the catcher made sure of it.

Onto the ninth they went, still tied at three apiece. It would stay that way as extras were forced, but what took place in the inning is well worth noting. Carlos Marmol, the Cubs closer, entered his outing with a Major League Baseball-best 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings, translated to 87 in 46 1/3 innings. He exited with 89, disposing of Felipe Lopez looking at a slider that curved deceptively into the middle of the plate, then let loose with a flaming fastball that Ludwick swung right through.

Wrigley went crazy at Marmol’s the sight of Marmol’s dominance, relishing in his devastating fastball-slider combination that the best hitters in the world can’t hit in their wildest dreams. But Cubs fans stopped applauding when Alfonso Soriano’s sawed off liner into right field in the bottom of the inning turned into a costly base-running mistake. The smacked curveball bounded down the right-field line as he neared first base and was misplayed by Ludwick as he rounded the bag. Someone aware of the bobble that slipped past Ludwick would have sprinted for second and reached safely rather easily. But Soriano, even with his speed, didn’t break for second, a mental lapse the fan-base is far too familiar with.

Because of his gaffe, a threat wasn’t made. The Cardinals had an opportunity to take full advantage to begin extras, but three singles wasn’t enough to send home the go-ahead run as Molina grounded into a swiftly-turned double-play.

It was the Cubs turn to load the bases in the bottom of the tenth, but it was also their turn to squander a chance to sweep St. Louis and head into their series with the lowly Houston Astros full of momentum. Byrd struck out as thousands of Chicago fans buried their heads in their hands in frustration that has haunted the franchise since 1908.

Fittingly, with their luck over the past 101 years, St. Louis broke through, undoing the deadlock with a scorcher into the right-field seats by Felipe Lopez in the 11th. Chicago went quietly in the bottom to end the intense marathon and their fans were sent glumly back to their cars, forced to let the team’s 53rd loss sink in.

There is still hope for the Cubs in the divisional race. Far bigger comebacks have been made with far less time to go in the season. But, none have been made by championship-starved Chicago in recent memory. The curse has to be reversed some time, and though their chances don’t look promising during the final season Lou Piniella will ever manage, a series win over the hated Cardinals, despite the disappointing finale, could spark a fire under their lot of underachievers, overpaid stars, and prized rookies and lead to an unexpected burst into playoff contention.

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