There was something strange in the air Saturday at Wrigley Field, and it wasn't just that slightly cooling breeze off Lake Michigan.
The Cubs and Cardinals went at it as they have for centuries, with the Cubs somehow coming away with a 3-2 victory before 41,276 spirited fans of both teams.
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The oddities in this one were almost too numerous to count:
• Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija walked the first three batters of the game on 16 pitches, but somehow got out of the inning with 1 run scored as Cardinals batters saw only 6 more pitches, swinging at 5.
• Reed Johnson came off the Cubs bench in the seventh inning with two outs and men on first and third and promptly surprised everybody by dunking a bunt down the third-base line for an RBI single to break a 2-2 tie.
• Well before that, in the first inning, Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano hit his first triple in almost a year, giving the Cubs a 2-1 lead.
Perhaps to show that the earth is still evenly keeled on its axis, one thing remained the same. Closer Carlos Marmol needed 22 pitches in the ninth inning, but he earned his 13th save, stranding a runner in scoring position.
This game had meaning only for the Cardinals, who are fighting for a wild-card spot. But for the Cubs, they won a game they likely would have lost earlier this season.
"I think we said it earlier in the year: We're going to have a lot of these games, and we need to learn quick how to win them," said Samardzija, who got a no-decision. "The bullpen came in and did a great job and Marmol did a great job at the end and we got that run when we needed it to go up 3-2.
"As a pitcher, I'm starting to learn that it's not over 'til it's over, and you need to claw your way and keep as many runs off the board as you can."
Samardzija issued 6 walks while notching 7 strikeouts over 6 innings of 3-hit, 2-run ball. In keeping with the strangeness of the day, he said the 3 walks to open the game might have helped him.
"I felt really good coming into the game," he said. "I just wanted to come in that first inning and hit my spots and get the game going. Just a little tentativeness kind of got me. I was trying to find my release point. I'm just happy I came out of that inning just giving up 1.
"It kind of calmed me down, to tell you the truth. It gives you a little confidence boost when you get out of that with just 1 run."
The Cubs found a way to win it in the seventh as Bryan LaHair, who has been struggling, led off against Cardinals starter Joe Kelly with a walk. Speedy Tony Campana pinch ran and stole second base before heading to third on Geovany Soto's single to left.
Things looked bleak after Jeff Baker lined out and Luis Valbuena struck out against lefty Brian Fuentes, but Johnson's bunt worked just fine. The Cubs might have added more if not for a blown call at first base by umpire Mike Winters. David DeJesus walked and Starlin Castro was called out at first after grounding to shortstop.
Manager Dale Sveum was ejected for arguing, but Castro might have helped himself "sell" the call to Winters if he had kept running through the bag instead of stopping as soon as he crossed it.
"It was close," Sveum said, offering no more thoughts on the play.
Sveum was more happy that things have come together of late for a team that's now 41-58. Marmol, who had struggled earlier, converted his 12th straight save opportunity, and he got good setup work from lefty James Russell (4-0) and right-hander Shawn Camp.
"The back of that bullpen's been pretty good," Sveum said. "From Russell to Camp to Marmol, it's been really good. That's the difference between winning those games and not, especially the 1-run games.