The Cubs were given a national stage Sunday night to prove they're a better team than their record suggests.
In another wild affair under sweltering conditions, they came back from an early deficit, blew a one-lead with two outs in the ninth inning and eventually outlasted St. Louis 8-4 on Neifi Perez's grand slam that vanished around the right-field foul pole in the 10th.
"That was the most beautiful disappearing act I've seen in a long time," manager Dusty Baker said.
The Cubs won their first series in Busch Stadium since Oct. 1-3, 1999, and headed back to Chicago only 4 1/2 games out of the National League wild-card lead.
With a game-time temperature of 98 degrees and a chance to gain a game on the leaders in the wild-card race, the Cubs knew the heat was on. Aramis Ramirez's two-out, two-run homer off Julian Tavarez gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead in the eighth, and when Ryan Dempster retired the first two men he faced in the bottom of the ninth, it looked like the game was in the bag.
St. Louis was hitless in 21 at-bats from the second inning until the ninth, when the roof caved in on Dempster for the first time in two months. He walked pinch-hitter Scott Seabol on a 3-2 pitch with two outs, then watched pinch-runner Hector Luna promptly steal second.
Replays showed Luna was out, but Perez didn't argue vehemently.
"I can't argue with the umpire," he said. "I might get thrown out of the game. See what happens later."
What happened next was an unfamiliar scene--Dempster blowing a lead. David Eckstein, whose squeeze bunt won Friday's game in the 11th, followed with an RBI single to right, tying the game at 4-4 and giving Dempster his first blown save in his last 15 opportunities.
Eckstein took second on the throw to the plate, and Abraham Nunez beat out an infield chopper to second, sending Eckstein to third and bringing Albert Pujols to the plate with the game on the line, but Dempster managed to retire him on a groundout, sending the game into extra innings.
Todd Walker doubled off Al Reyes leading off the 10th, and after Derrek Lee was intentional walked--his fourth base on balls of the evening--Jeromy Burnitz laid down his first sacrifice bunt since 2002, and his third sacrifice in eight seasons. Ramirez was intentionally walked to load the bases before pinch-hitter Michael Barrett struck out, bringing up Perez with two outs.
"I'm no long-ball hitter," Perez said. "I've been struggling, but I'm hitting the ball good. I'm not striking out a lot. In this series I was 1-for-13, but I hit seven hard ground balls to first base. Nothing I can do about it."
Cubs starter Mark Prior came out flat, allowing home runs to three of the first five men he faced before settling down. Nunez, Jim Edmonds and John Mabry homered in the Cardinals' three-run first, putting the Cubs in a quick hole.
"I left some bad pitches up in the game early, but fortunately they were all solo home runs," Prior said. "I battled through it and kept us in the ballgame."
Prior also failed to hustle on a grounder to first in the second inning, letting Nunez reach on an infield hit when he failed to get to the bag in time. But he got into a groove thereafter and did not allow another hit in a six-inning stint.
Henry Blanco, who tied a career high with four hits, hit a solo homer in the second off Jeff Suppan and followed with an RBI single in the fourth, slicing the Cardinals' lead to one run and setting up the late-inning heroics by Ramirez and Perez.
"It's never easy here," Baker said. "Never."