CHICAGO — Already down by three runs, the intensity of Nolan Arenado’s third inning at-bat Wednesday ratcheted beyond its usual prominence in a game as it neared eight pitches. The Cardinals had two runners on, no Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup, a deficit to erase, a chance to do it now, and Arenado just fouled off three pitches to get and keep the count full.
Cubs starter Luke Farrell delivered a fastball off the outside edge of the plate, and Arenado twitched but felt he kept his bat back. He leaned toward first, ready to take a walk he earned and load the bases.
The umpire saw things differently.
In a blink, Arenado went from controlling an at-bat to letting loose his frustration. Home-plate umpire John Libka ruled Arenado did not check his swing. Arenado turned and confronted Libka. He felt a walk had been taken from him. The game was about to be.
“For sure, he had a quick hook,” Arenado said of being ejected in that moment. “I think that’s why I was so mad. I work an at-bat with a man at first and second. It would have been bases loaded with (Nolan) Gorman coming up. Tough at-bat. I felt like I did my job, and I felt like I won that at-bat as far as getting on base. But he saw it otherwise. My temper was a little quick there. I got real angry.
“I don’t know how else to explain it other than I know I didn’t go.”
Arenado’s ejection deleted one of the game’s top cleanup hitters and meant the Cardinals would play the remaining six innings without their two MVP candidates. Goldschmidt had the day off, and manager Oliver Marmol knew only a narrow set of situations he would use his leading hitter.
The game bent in a illustrative fashion – with the backend of the Cubs’ lineup producing what the bottom of the Cardinals’ lineup did not. The lowest third of the Cubs’ order provided the team’s first five RBIs on the way to a 7-1 victory Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. Those same spots in the Cardinals order went zero-for-five with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals’ lone run came on Lars Nootbaar’s solo homer, and Paul DeJong struck out twice as Arenado’s replacement in the lineup.
“It impacted the game in the moment and impacts the rest of the game without having one of your best players on the field,” Marmol said. “Playing hard, making a run for it – that can’t be handled that way moving forward. I’m more frustrated that you can impact the course of the game that badly. I think it should have been handled completely different.”
A pool reporter was not arranged by the media in time to get Libka’s explanation.
The Cardinals’ issue was his immediate decision to eject Arenado instead of letting Arenado fume and move on. The ejection was the Cardinals second of the road trip, Arenado’s second of the season. Like Marmol’s ejection this past weekend in Arizona, a smile was involved. Marmol took issue with umpire C. B. Bucknor’s “smirk” as he ejected the manager for arguing balls and strikes. Libka had a grin as he ejected Arenado.
The entire exchange, including Arenado’s snap pivot to confront Libka, put both professionals in close proximity. Libka had barely finished his strikeout hand signal when he transitioned to an ejection. The Cardinals confirmed that Arenado did not say any of the phrases that might have got him ejected so rapidly. Marmol said the explanation he received from Libka was not satisfactory.
Libka did not check with first-base ump Jim Reynolds for his view on whether Arenado checked his swing or not, calling him out instead at the plate.
“I didn’t think that was his call to make,” Arenado said. “You could definitely say I overreacted in the moment. I probably shouldn’t have – especially in the third inning with a lot of ballgame left – (but) I knew I didn’t go, so that’s why I was really upset about it. I can’t get thrown out there, especially with Goldy with a day off.”
Arenado’s absence turned Wednesday’s game into a reminder.
As powerful as he and Goldschmidt have been as a Most Valuable Tandem – both are leading candidates to win the NL MVP award – the rise of the Cardinals’ offense this month is rooted in the rising tides of others. Islands of production the first half, Arenado and Goldschmidt are now the biggest parts of an archipelago.
Entering Wednesday’s game, Goldschmidt had a .364 average this month and Arenado was hitting .349 in August. Three teammates had higher averages this month.
Albert Pujols has doubled his season total with seven home runs this month, tied with Goldschmidt and Arenado for the MLB-lead. No player as a higher average since the All-Star break than Pujols, and he’s hitting .450 this month. Rookie Brendan Donovan too a .419 August average into Wednesday’s game, and all Corey Dickerson did was tie a Cardinals’ record with his second consecutive four-hit game. Dickerson has hit safely in eight consecutive at-bats – tying the longest streak by a Cardinal in the expansion era, per Elias Sports Bureau. Dickerson is batting .444 since the All-Star break.
“Other guys are going to have contribute,” Marmol said. “(Tyler) O’Neill is going to have to be in that mix. I think all of these guys will contribute to some degree.”
Dickerson doubled in his first at-bat was left stranded in scoring position. He singled in his second at-bat, got to third on Pujols’ double, and then both were left stranded in scoring position.
Potential rallies stirred around Dickerson and stalled after him.
Yadier Molina, batting eighth, grounded out and popped up to end innings with two runners on base each time. The Cardinals left eight runners on base. The Cubs illustrated the opposite outcome. A bunt single loaded the bases with no outs against starter Miles Mikolas in the second inning, and the Cubs took a 3-0 lead with two of those runs scoring on groundouts. The only hard-hit ball of the inning came from No. 8 hitter Nelson Velazquez. The next hard hit in the game came in the seventh inning from No. 9 hitter Zach McKinstry.
He lofted a ball to right field that hugged the line and dropped into the seats atop the right-field wall and nearest the foul pole. That hit ended Mikolas’ evening and gave the Cubs a 5-1 lead.
The middle of the Cubs order would get involved to extend that lead.
When the Cardinals had that same chance, the middle of their lineup had been rewritten by an ejection many innings earlier.
“This is a high stakes environment,” Marmol said. “Bottom line. Emotions are going to be high. You have to have thick skin. That, right there, should have been handled differently.
“It didn’t merit an ejection. Ever.”
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