CHICAGO – For a Cubs team that is on pace to lose more than 90 games for a third consecutive season, getting the taste of a playoff atmosphere has been a rarity.
But with the St. Louis Cardinals, tied for the best record in the National League, in town for a four-game series heading into the All-Star break, the Cubs have gotten a glimpse of what it would mean to be part of a pennant race. A season-high 42,240 people were at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, a healthy number of those fans cheering for the rival Cardinals.
It created a lively atmosphere, potentially the best of the season as Matt Garza made what could be his final start at Wrigley as a member of the Cubs.
Garza’s sixth consecutive start allowing two earned runs or less fueled the Cubs to a 6-4 victory and sets them up to win the series tonight.
“It was probably one of the better ones we’ve had here, since I’ve been here anyway,” manager Dale Sveum said of the atmosphere. “You could feel it. Even the players could sense it. Once we took that lead [in the third] they could feel how big a game this was for us.”
Wins like Saturday’s, though ultimately mean little in the Cubs’ threat – or lack thereof – to make the playoffs, give younger players an opportunity to experience a playoff-type game.
With core players such as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo having never sniffed the playoffs while on the Cubs, they took advantage of an enthusiastic crowd against one of baseball’s best teams.
“Any time you get in an atmosphere anywhere near a playoff atmosphere … until you’ve experienced that, these are the games that kind of give you a sense of what it’s like,” Sveum said.
The Cubs outplayed the Cardinals most of the game, at some points making it difficult to discern which team was 20 games over .500.
In a role reversal, it was St. Louis making the errors on routine plays and failing to take advantage with runners on base.
“You can’t expect anything better,” Garza said. “We’ve turned a corner and we’re playing great baseball right now. We’re coming up with clutch hits and coming up with great plays in tough situations. You can see growth and it’s awesome.”
It wasn’t lost on Cub fans that Garza may have made his final start on the North Side. Fans gave Garza a standing ovation as he walked off the field with the Cubs leading 6-2 after allowing two runs on 10 hits in 6 2/3 innings.
“His pitching count went a little higher than we wanted it, but he kept battling,” catcher Dioner Navarro said.
Garza didn’t acknowledge the fans, however, slamming his glove against his thigh as he approached the dugout, frustrated he failed to get out of the jam.
“I really didn’t pay attention,” Garza said of the standing ovation. “I was [ticked] off I didn’t finish that inning. … It was awesome, but 6 2/3 [innings] doesn’t deserve that.
“I appreciate it, but I hope it wasn’t my last one.”
Garza has eight days off between starts, and he understands those eight days could be enough time to trade him. In spite of any rhetoric from Garza indicating he wants to stay with the Cubs, it should be no surprise if he gets dealt within the next week.
“It’s a great place to play, a great place to pitch,” Garza said. “The fans really embrace you when you do your job. When you don’t they embrace you, just not in a positive way. I like it here.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.