Cubs blow lead in ninth, fall in 11th vs. Cardinals

With slightly less than two-thirds of the season left, manager David Ross has detected some tendencies among his players.

“We know our strengths and weaknesses, and we got to play clean games,” Ross said.

Lately, the Cubs held their ground against the White Sox, Brewers and Cardinals. The reason?

“A new spark in [Christopher] Morel as of late that has helped us play better baseball,” Ross said. “He gives us a good hitter at the top of the lineup.”

Morel hit a single Sunday night against 40-year-old Cardinals craftsman Adam Wainwright in the third inning to extend his franchise record of reaching safely in his first 20 major-league games — the longest of any major-leaguer, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Nevertheless, there’s still room for improvement. Two runners were thrown out on the basepaths. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom threw a one-bouncer that somehow skipped past first baseman Frank Schwindel and set up a two-run, game-tying single by Nolan Arenado.

And Rowan Wick blew his first save in five chances, allowing a leadoff triple to Harrison Bader and a game-tying single to Lars Nootbaar in the ninth inning.

The final blow occurred in the 11th, when Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan had run-scoring hits to give the Cardinals a 5-3 victory.

The Cubs wasted a sterling performance from left-hander Justin Steele, who matched his career high with seven innings.

Embattled Jason Heyward hit a two-out RBI single in the fourth inning, and Wisdom and pinch hitter P.J. Higgins hit consecutive doubles off Genesis Cabrera in the eighth to give the Cubs a short-lived 3-2 lead.

There will be some lessons learned, such as Morel lunging at a 72 mph Wainwright curve and popping out to second in his fourth at-bat. But Morel is adapting well in other areas, such as center field.

Morel, 22, who played third base throughout most of his time in the minors, turned twice on a deep fly by Yadier Molina in the second inning but ran to the right spot to make the catch in plenty of time.

That confidence has carried from the batter’s box, where his plate discipline has resulted in a .380 on-base percentage.

“I just trust my ability, trust what I can do,” said Morel, who credited his faith frequently. “And I try to never lessen the confidence I have in myself when I’m in the batter’s box.”

Nor will Morel overlook the assistance he has received during his initial ascent.

“Just that feeling of being like a family, having the opportunity to go out there every day and play for those fans,” Morel said. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity. I’m thankful to God for giving me that opportunity. And I’m taking advantage of it as best I can.”

Morel isn’t shy about mingling with opponents, even the rival Cardinals. He reacquainted himself with slugger Albert Pujols, whom he played against in the Dominican Winter League.

And he relished his exchange with Arenado this weekend.

“That was probably the most surprising one I’ve had,” said Morel, who was told, “just keep working hard, giving my all.”

“That was something that was important to me and meant a lot,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Morel credited teammate Willson Contreras and venerable staff assistant Juan Cabrera.

Morel stressed that Contreras does more for him than what’s shown on cameras: “He’s always there for me.”

Cabrera stresses to “follow the plan.”

So far, it’s working well.

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