CHICAGO — Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals are taking charge of the NL Central by grinding out tough, ugly wins.
And bouncing back after absorbing some unpleasant blows.
Molina overcame a painful foul tip to get three of St. Louis' four hits, including a two-run single, and the Cardinals held off the fading Chicago Cubs 2-1 on Friday.
"We're playing good baseball right now," Molina said. "We can get a little better doing the little things, but we're winning games. That's all that matters right now."
Carlos Martínez got the final two outs a day after a brutal blown save, and the Cardinals maintained a three-game NL Central lead over Milwaukee while opening a five-game margin over Chicago. The Cubs dropped two games behind the Brewers for the second NL wild card with eight games left.
Chicago has totalled nine runs while losing four straight games. The Cardinals have won the first two games of this key four-game set, and they'll play the Cubs five more times over their final eight games.
The Cubs scored their run following a St. Louis error in the second inning, and the Cardinals rallied in the sixth.
David Phelps (2-1), the second of eight Cubs relievers, walked Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to start the inning. Steve Cishek took over and walked Matt Carpenter to load the bases before Molina grounded a 2-2 pitch up the middle.
"I pride myself on being able to command the baseball," Phelps said. "Going out and doing that is embarrassing."
Molina came through after being hit in the groin by Jason Heyward's foul tip in the fourth inning. The veteran catcher stayed on the ground for a couple of minutes to regroup.
"When you get hit ... it's going to take a while," Molina said. "So I just wanted to be part of this game. I just want to be there for the team."
Last year, Molina needed surgery and missed a month following a similar foul tip.
"That's the toughest, smartest guy I may ever know," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said.
It was another narrow victory for St. Louis. The Cardinals won 5-4 in 10 innings Thursday night when Carpenter homered off All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. Chicago had rallied with three runs in the ninth against Martínez and Andrew Miller.
Miller pitched the eighth inning Friday and got the first out in the ninth before Shildt went to Martínez. The right-hander got a popup, walked pinch-hitter Tony Kemp and then got Ben Zobrist to ground out to complete his 22nd save.
Shildt had no qualms about letting Martínez finish this one.
"No question about it," Shildt said. "He came in the clubhouse and said, 'I got two (innings) in me today.'"
Michael Wacha pitched four innings of one-run ball for St. Louis, and five relievers shut down Chicago after that. Ryan Helsley (2-0) pitched a scoreless fifth for the win.
The Cardinals left 12 on base. Chicago stranded nine runners and hit into three double plays.
Manager Joe Maddon and his players have no explanation for the team's slump, which comes on the heels of a five-game winning streak when the Cubs outscored opponents 59-18.
"We have to somehow get more consistent offensively," Maddon said. "When the opportunities come up, we have to take advantage of them. We've had some good at-bats."
Chicago went up 1-0 after Kyle Schwarber doubled in the second and scored from third when second baseman Tommy Edman bobbled David Bote's grounder. Bote was awarded an RBI because it was ruled that Schwarber would have scored regardless.
Alec Mills pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings for the Cubs, but the bullpen issued seven walks and couldn't hold the 1-0 lead. Mills allowed two hits and struck out six.
RIZZO'S RAPID RETURN
Anthony Rizzo batted leadoff and played first base for the second straight day after an unexpected return Thursday from a sprained right ankle. He had a single and a walk in three plate appearances before being replaced in a double switch in the sixth.
Cardinals: 2B Kolten Wong was scheduled to have an MRI on his injured left hamstring after leaving Thursday's game in the fifth inning. Shildt didn't have results before Friday's game.
Cubs: RHP Brandon Kintzler (strained left oblique) said he felt good and was ready to return after being inspired by Rizzo. Kintzler last pitched Sept. 10 at San Diego.
Cardinals RHP Dakota Hudson (16-7, 3.35) takes the mound against Cubs LHP Jose Quintana (13-8, 3.35) on Saturday. Hudson is 6-1 in his last seven starts with a 1.59 ERA. Quintana has an 11.32 ERA in his last three starts and has failed to get past the third inning in his last two.
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