CHICAGO — The St. Louis Cardinals are headed home to make one last try for a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.
Carlos Martinez pitched six solid innings, but St. Louis was shut down by Jon Lester in a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sunday night.
The Cardinals lost for the third time in four games, wasting a chance to improve their playoff positioning. They remain a half-game back of San Francisco for the second NL wild card after the Giants lost 4-3 at San Diego earlier in the day.
“I think we’re in a good position right now,” Martinez said through a translator. “I also think we have a great shot at winning the World Series.”
The Cardinals dropped two of three against the major league-leading Cubs, finishing a 5-5 road trip. Next up is a season-ending seven-game homestand against last-place Cincinnati and Pittsburgh beginning on Monday night against the Reds.
St. Louis rolled to a 10-4 victory on Saturday, but it scored just two runs in its three losses during its mini-slide.
“We’re going to have to mix and match and make something happen,” manager Mike Matheny said.
David Ross homered and Ben Zobrist had three hits as Chicago finished with a major league-best 57-24 home record. It’s the most home wins for the Cubs since they went 58-19 at the West Side Grounds in 1910.
Lester (19-4), one of the top candidates for the NL Cy Young Award, struck out seven in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. The left-hander allowed three hits and walked one while improving to 10-0 with 1.34 ERA in his last 13 starts.
“He’s done that most of the season,” Matheny said. “We took a few good at-bats, but overall we couldn’t string them together. Once again, that big hit, we were missing.”
Ross, who plans to retire after the season, was greeted with a long standing ovation when he came to the plate in the second inning. St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina walked halfway to the mound, forcing the unassuming Ross to take in the moment, and he took off his batting helmet to acknowledge the cheering crowd.
Ross then struck out, but he got another chance in the fifth and drove Martinez’s second pitch over the wall in left for 1-0 lead. Ross clapped his hands as he rounded first on his 10th homer and the cheers continued after he reached the dugout, prompting a curtain call.
“It was just fitting that David would hit a home run, isn’t it?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I mean it had to have happened tonight.”
The Cardinals pulled within one on Jhonny Peralta’s two-out RBI single in the eighth, but Brandon Moss flied to center with runners on the corners. Willson Contreras responded with an RBI single in the bottom half and Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth for his 16th save with the NL Central champions and No. 36 on the year.
Martinez (15-9), pitching with a heavy heart after the death of Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez in a boating accident, allowed two runs and six hits. He struck out six and walked four.
“He had lots of juice,” Matheny said. “It’s probably the hardest sinker I’ve ever seen him throw. A couple of those were 97 (mph). He was locked in. He wanted it bad today, and he was good enough for us to win.”
RESTING AND MOURNING
St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who is dealing with some arm fatigue, got the day off. Diaz also was a childhood friend of Fernandez.
Matheny said he would have scratched Diaz had he been in the lineup. Diaz declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.
“He’s pretty stoic. You see how he goes about his business,” Matheny said. “That’s kind of how he’s handling this right now. He was a close, close friend, so he’s trying to figure out how to mourn for his friend right now and take all the information in. None of that is easy.”
Cardinals: LHP Jaime Garcia (10-12, 4.59 ERA) faces Cincinnati RHP Tim Adleman (2-4, 4.06 ERA) on Monday night.
Cubs: RHP Kyle Hendricks (15-8, 2.06 ERA) pitches for Chicago in the opener of a four-game series at Pittsburgh. RHP Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) gets the ball for the Pirates on Monday night.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap