Cubs wondering 'what if' after heartbreaker

Cubs left wondering 'what if'

ST. LOUIS -- What if Bobby Scales was able to make a better play on Mark DeRosa's triple in the left-field corner in the fifth? What if Ryan Theriot isn't picked off to end the ninth? What if Aaron Heilman doesn't fall behind, 3-1, to Matt Holliday?

What if the St. Louis Cardinals don't add Holliday, DeRosa and John Smoltz this year? Who knows what the National League Central standings would look like?

Holliday, one of the Cardinals' late-season additions, belted a walk-off homer leading off the ninth Friday night to lift St. Louis to a 3-2 victory over the Cubs and Ted Lilly, who deserved better.

"Ifs, coulds, buts, whats -- what else?" Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Lilly pitched well. We put two runs on the board against Smoltz. I said, 'Well, we swung the bats well at home, we might have five or six here today.' Their pitching staff settled down and did a nice job."

Holliday connected on a 3-1 pitch off Heilman (3-4) for his third career walk-off homer and second this year. It's his first since joining the Cardinals.

"It was a fastball away," Heilman said, "and I thought I made a pretty good pitch. It's never a good pitch when it goes over the fence. That's a tough way to lose. Teddy pitched a heck of a ballgame today. It's certainly not the way you want to start off the first game of a series."

Theriot tried to get something started in the ninth. He singled with two outs off Ryan Franklin but was picked off at first base.

"I'm trying to get to second base, trying to steal that bag," Theriot said. "It's always tough when you've got a catcher like [Yadier Molina] back there. You try to get a little extra on your lead. The guy had a good move and I got picked off."

Lilly had thrown 103 pitches after seven innings, and the Cardinals made two quick outs on two pitches to start the eighth. Colby Rasmus then singled. Piniella went to the mound, and after some discussion, pulled Lilly for Kevin Gregg, who got Albert Pujols to hit a grounder to shortstop for the force, ending the inning.

"It was kind of a tricky situation," Lilly said. "Obviously, Albert's the last guy in the game I would say you want to beat you. In that situation, I sure would've liked to have been up by a few runs facing him there. What do you do? It's always a great challenge facing him, and you don't get away with too many mistakes against him."

Lilly struck out six and gave up five hits over 7 2/3 innings, his 10th game in which he did not walk a batter.

The Cubs rapped three straight doubles in the first to open a 2-0 lead against Smoltz, one of the Cardinals' late-season pickups. Kosuke Fukudome, who went 1-for-25 on the homestand, started the mini hit parade with one out, then scored on Derrek Lee's double and he tallied on Aramis Ramirez's double.

"He changed," Theriot said of Smoltz. "Early in the game, the first at-bat, his heater was pretty straight. In my second at-bat, he was a different pitcher. He was using his cutter and his sinker as well and a good slider all night. There's a reason why he'll be a Hall of Famer."

Lilly retired the first nine batters he faced, then had to face one of his best friends. DeRosa, who had three hits off his former teammate in a Spring Training game, including two homers and a double, added an RBI triple in the fifth, driving in Ryan Ludwick, who singled. DeRosa's ball went into the corner in left and Scales, more of an infielder than outfielder, had a tough time chasing it down.

"Scales is learning outfield play," said Piniella, who doesn't have many options because of injuries to players. "He went into the corner. An outfielder has to wait for that ball to come out, concede the double to the hitter and that's it. What are you going to do? If the game stays that way, we go into the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead."

Another "if."

One out after the triple, DeRosa scored on Brendan Ryan's sacrifice fly to tie the game at 2.

The Cubs had two on and two outs in the sixth, and Smoltz intentionally walked Scales to load the bases. But Lilly grounded out to end that threat. That was the only situation, besides the first inning, in which the Cubs had runners in scoring position.

This is the first meeting between the two teams since a four-game series prior to the All-Star break. At that time, St. Louis led the National League Central by 3 1/2 games. Now, it's a 10-game lead, and the Cardinals are aligning their pitching rotation for the postseason.

"We were looking to come in here and be closer than where we're at," Piniella said. "It hasn't happened. Right now, we're on the outskirts and we need to play as well as we can regardless of what happens between now and the end of the year and win as many games as we can. That's all we can do."

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