Greg Garcia’s inaugural big-league blast helps Birds rally past Cubs

ST. LOUIS — Another chance at a four-game win streak looked to be slipping away from the Cardinals when they fell behind in the seventh inning Friday night.

But St. Louis can never be truly counted out of a game, especially at home, thanks to a roster full of players who all believe they can provide the big hit. This time, it came from perhaps the most unlikely bat, as pinch hitter Greg Garcia sent Pedro Strop’s fastball into the center-field bleachers for his first career home run to lead off the eighth inning and tie the game.

From there, it felt like only a matter of time before the Cardinals wrapped up their seventh straight win at Busch Stadium — which they did, a 3-2, 10-inning triumph over the Chicago Cubs to improve to an absurd 27-7 at home. No one relished the pivotal moment and its aftermath more than Garcia, who had to be told by manager Mike Matheny to come out of the dugout for a curtain call.

"It was so cool," Garcia said. "You can’t re-create that feeling, and to do it with this group of guys and how they’ve embraced me the last year and a half is something special to contribute for these guys. For me to help out any way I can makes me feel good."

The middle infielder doesn’t really qualify as a home-run threat, and he hadn’t hit one since he was in Triple A on Aug. 3, 2014, a span of 294 at-bats, mostly with the Memphis Redbirds. Even Matheny said he was pleasantly surprised to see the 408-foot blast from Garcia, who was called up to St. Louis last Friday.

He already has five hits, matching the total of Xavier Scruggs, his Memphis teammate who was called up at the same time to boost a struggling offense. Garcia said neither player has felt pressure to continue his Triple A hot streak for baseball’s best team, which improved to 49-24 with its 16th one-run win.

The Cardinals earned it despite getting outhit 12-6 and going 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position, the only hit coming when Kolten Wong’s 10th-inning grounder up the middle hit off the mound and second base to confound the Cubs’ infielders. That moved Peter Bourjos to third after a leadoff double in his only at-bat, and he scored when right fielder Mike Baxter, playing as a fifth infielder, snagged Jhonny Peralta’s grounder to second base but threw wildly trying to get the force at home.

The Cardinals missed a golden opportunity early, when Peralta came up with one out and Wong on third base after a leadoff double, followed by a Matt Carpenter grounder. For the third time in his last three games, Peralta, the team’s RBI leader, failed to take advantage of a runner 90 feet from home with less than two outs. Shortstop Starlin Castro fielded Peralta’s grounder and threw out Wong at the plate.

A similar situation unfolded in the second, when Randal Grichuk hit a one-out triple to score Yadier Molina from first to put St. Louis ahead. This time, Jon Jay’s groundball to first base left Grichuk with no chance to beat the throw home.

"A couple missed opportunities we thought were going to haunt us whenever you have a pitcher like how Arrieta’s throwing the ball right now," Matheny said. "We didn’t get guys in and just kind of kept playing the game, and fortunately, we had a couple big hits to get us in a good position there to put pressure on their defense."

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The Cardinals would get only one more baserunner in their last five innings against Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who lowered his ERA against St. Louis to 1.48 in eight career starts. Jay ended a streak of seven straight retired with a leadoff single in the fifth, but his teammates couldn’t even advance him to second.

Right-hander John Lackey worked around plenty of traffic on the basepaths to get through seven innings for his fourth straight start and the sixth time in his last seven. Even Kevin Siegrist got into trouble in the eighth before striking out Addison Russell to strand two runners in scoring position.

Bourjos said the team’s ability to stick together and forget about earlier mistakes lead to its late comebacks, which have become something of a habit this season. Lackey noted sellout crowds at home only add to that vibe, giving everyone plenty of energy and motivation to make key contributions.

"It seems like somebody different all the time," Lackey said. "Greg Garcia with the huge home run tonight, his first big-league homer. That’s awesome to see. You never know who it’s going to be, but we feel like we have a good chance every night."

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.