Cardinals make a return to October at Cubs' expense

CHICAGO -- The National League Central, long the playground of the St. Louis Cardinals, has been dominated by a usurper the past few years. The Chicago Cubs -- the franchise once known as the "lovable losers" -- have reigned supreme, with two division titles, two wild-card berths, a pennant and a World Series title. That spree is now on life support, and after three stunning St. Louis victories at Wrigley Field, the Cubs' woes have taken on a decidedly reddish hue.

The Cardinals have won all three games by a lone tally and each of the contests has been singular in style and rhythm. On Thursday, the Cubs rallied late after a dominant outing from Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, but in extra innings, scuffling third baseman Matt Carpenter successfully hunted a Craig Kimbrel fastball and blasted it into the center-field seats. (Put a pin in that image.) On Friday, St. Louis eked out a 2-1 nail-biter thanks to a two-run single from Yadier Molina and a whole lot of situational pitching.

Finally, there came Saturday's classic, a 4-hour, 24-minute grinder that was the longest nine-inning game in the history of Wrigley Field. After the Cardinals grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first, the lead changed hands six times. The sixth, and final, flip-flop came in the form of twin lightning bolts. Again, Kimbrel was on the mound. Again the Cardinals were seeking early-count heaters to destroy. And again, the hunt was successful.