CHICAGO — David Ross got fired up when Cubs manager Joe Maddon walked to the mound with two out in the seventh inning, ready to argue for Jon Lester to stay in the game.
Maddon and Lester had a different plan.
“Joe looked at him and said ‘Have you ever been a part of where the catcher gets taken out of the game before the pitcher?'” Lester said, describing the scene with a big grin. “You can just see him, it’s like the kid at the candy store when you tell him he can pick out whatever he wants.
“It was just like the disbelief in his face and slams his mask back over his face and all he can say is ‘I love you guys. I love you guys. I love you guys.'”
Ross then walked off to another standing ovation from a raucous crowd of 40,859 at Wrigley Field, part of a heartwarming Sunday night for the backup catcher in his last season. He also hit his 10th homer and teamed with Lester for another scoreless performance, helping the Cubs to a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was an amazing night,” Ross said.
Ben Zobrist had three hits and scored two runs 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.
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,” pitcher Carlos Martinez said through a translator. “I also think we have a great shot at winning the World Series.”
Ross, Lester’s regular catcher, 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?” Maddon said. “I mean it had to have happened tonight.”
Lester (19-4), one of the top candidates for the NL Cy Young Award, struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings. The left-hander allowed three hits and walked one while improving to 10-0 with 1.34 ERA in his last 13 starts.
It was Lester’s idea to pull Ross in the middle of an inning.
“He’s like a brother to me and for him to give me that was pretty cool,” Ross said.
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 in six innings. He struck out six and walked four.
“He had lots of juice,” Cardinals manager Mike 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 in the opener of a seven-game homestand. After four against the last-place Reds, the Cardinals finish the regular season with a three-game series against Pittsburgh.
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