Cubs rally in ninth, but rain cuts it short

Cubs rally in ninth, but rain cuts it short

CHICAGO -- The St. Louis Cardinals' magic number is one, but when they officially celebrate their second straight division title, the Chicago Cubs can only watch.

Larry Walker and John Rodriguez each drove in two runs to back Jeff Suppan and lift the Cardinals to a 6-1 rain-shortened victory over the Cubs on Thursday. The champagne is still on ice.

Here's the deal: This was the Cardinals' 94th win of the year. Second-place Houston has 68 losses, and there is the remote possibility that the Cardinals and Astros could finish the year with the same record. However, all of the other teams in the Wild Card race have at least 69 losses.

If the Cardinals and Astros finished tied, both teams would be in the playoffs. A tiebreaker would then be used to determine which team is the division champ and which is the Wild Card winner. Because St. Louis already has won the season series against Houston, 11-3, the Cardinals would be division champions. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa was adamant after the game that the matter had not been settled.

Confusing? Not to the folks wearing red in the crowd of 37,849 at Wrigley Field. The end of the game was delayed 58 minutes by rain and there was no champagne, no celebration on the field.

"It's not like it snuck up on anybody that they were going to win the division," Cubs pitcher Mark Prior said.

Suppan (15-10) struck out seven and held the Cubs to one run on six hits over eight-plus innings. The Cubs' one run came on Derrek Lee's 43rd home run leading off the ninth. Suppan retired 13 in a row before Neifi Perez singled to lead off the eighth.

"We waited a little too late to get going," Lee said. "Suppan pitched great tonight -- it wasn't a good day to hit and he was locating well.

"He had all his pitches working," Lee said of Suppan. "He can be good when he's locating like he did. It didn't seem like he threw anything down the middle of the plate."

Chicago is the only Central Division team with a winning record against St. Louis, and now is 8-5 for the season.

"The Cardinals have put two years together that have been unbelievable," Prior said. "More than anything, they win the games that they're supposed to win. We lost nine out of 15 or something like that to the Reds. We can't do that if you want to contend every year.

"We've played the Cardinals pretty well," he said. "We've struggled with the East. We've got to push through teams that are tough, and hopefully we can do that next year."

Prior (11-6) took the loss. He gave up three runs on six hits over five innings while striking out four, and once again threw too many pitches in too little time.

"I didn't have good command of my breaking ball or my fastball tonight," Prior said. "For whatever reason, things weren't clicking early on when I needed it."

The Cardinals didn't waste any time. David Eckstein singled to lead off the game and then struck out Jim Edmonds. Albert Pujols singled, Larry Walker followed with an RBI double and Pujols scored on Rodriguez's groundout. Abraham Nunez made it 3-0 with an RBI single.

Prior threw 35 pitches in the first inning, and finished the game with 93. He's had a tough time keeping his pitch count down to enable him to go deep in games.

"That first inning has cost him a lot of pitches," manager Dusty Baker said. "He's been throwing so many pitches the last three starts, that's why we took him out. After the first inning, he started throwing the ball better. He had a lot of deep counts, a lot of 3-2 counts. Those pitches mount up."

"I threw a lot in the first inning," Prior said. "They're a team that just fights off pitches. Eckstein is fouling off balls and you wait for him to get himself out or bloop something in like he does. In that situation, you're just trying to minimize pitches. I got behind Larry Walker and he went with a pitch and hit it hard.

"It's something I'll work on in Spring Training and try to limit it," he said. "I go through it every year and go through stretches where I throw a lot of pitches for whatever reason."

The Cardinals loaded the bases in the eighth on back-to-back walks by rookie Rich Hill, who was then pulled. Pujols blooped a single in front of center fielder Jerry Hairston to load the bases, and Todd Wellemeyer walked Walker to force in a run. Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to make it 5-0, and another run scored on a throwing error by Cubs second baseman Todd Walker.

The Cubs loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth before rain stopped play.

"It was dangerous when you saw Eckstein went down," Baker said of the shortstop, who slipped trying to field Henry Blanco's grounder. "That's when you knew the field was getting too sloppy to play on. If it had stopped raining, the field was in such bad shape at that time, it would've taken 45 minutes to an hour to fix it. Then they risk [Friday's] field conditions, too. It's supposed to rain through [Friday] morning."

The Cardinals are the first team to clinch a title at Wrigley Field since the 2003 Florida Marlins won the National League Championship Series at the Friendly Confines. Lee was on that Marlins team. Now, the Cubs are playing for pride and to try to at least get back to .500.

"It's much tougher to play when you're playing individually," Lee said. "You have to try to take something positive out of the season."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.