CHICAGO — Willson Contreras yelled as he rounded first base and the ball landed in the bleachers at Wrigley Field.
The Chicago Cubs are having fun again, led by their exuberant catcher.
Contreras hit a tiebreaking two-run homer, handing another victory to Jose Quintana, and the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 5-3 on Sunday night to move into a virtual tie for first in the NL Central.
Kyle Schwarber also connected as the Cubs won for the eighth time in nine games since the All-Star break. The World Series champions improved to 51-46, just a few percentage points ahead of Milwaukee after the Brewers (53-48) lost 6-3 at Philadelphia.
“Starting the second half with this kind of energy feels good,” Contreras said.
With one out and Kris Bryant aboard after a leadoff double in the sixth, Contreras drove a 3-1 pitch from Michael Wacha into the bleachers in left-center for his third homer in his last four games and No. 15 on the year.
The 25-year-old Contreras also threw out Yadier Molina trying to steal second ahead of Paul DeJong’s solo homer in the fourth. He is batting .339 (21 for 62) in July.
“He’s doing everything,” manager Joe Maddon said . “He’s hitting fourth, he’s catching, he’s handling a really good pitching staff, he’s throwing people out, he’s blocking the ball really well and he’s hitting homers.”
Randal Grichuk hit a two-run homer for the Cardinals, who closed out a 4-6 road trip with their fourth loss in five games. Paul DeJong also went deep.
Coming off his first career shutout, Wacha (7-4) was charged with five runs and six hits in six innings in his first loss since May 30. The right-hander was 4-0 with a 1.01 ERA in his previous four starts, including a three-hitter in a 5-0 victory against the Mets on Tuesday.
“I fell behind a couple of guys and didn’t make a pitch on a few guys when I needed to,” Wacha said. “That pretty much cost us.”
Quintana (6-8) struck out seven in six innings in his first home start since he was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the White Sox on July 13. He pitched seven sparkling innings in an 8-0 victory at Baltimore in his Cubs debut last Sunday.
The veteran left-hander wasn’t nearly as sharp this time around, but he was good enough. He shook off some early excitement and allowed three runs and five hits while improving to 3-0 in three career starts against St. Louis.
“Try to be focused inning by inning and, like I said, get my team in good position for a W,” he said.
After Contreras went deep, the Cubs’ bullpen took over. Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. each got three outs before Wade Davis finished for his 20th save in 20 opportunities, breaking the club’s single-season record for most consecutive saves.
The Cardinals pulled Matt Carpenter in the second inning with right quad tightness, but the first baseman said he doesn’t think it’s serious. Carpenter reached on an error in the first and was thrown out at home when he tried to score on Jedd Gyorko’s two-out double to left-center.
“I hope to be in there tomorrow,” Carpenter said.
Right-hander Kyle Hendricks makes his first start since June 4 when the Cubs host the crosstown White Sox on Monday afternoon. Hendricks, who won 16 games last season and led the majors with a 2.13 ERA, was sidelined by pain in the middle finger of his right hand — quite possibly from overuse.
“That’s probably the problem. Yeah, stop flipping the bird to people,” the mild-mannered Hendricks said with a laugh. “Maybe it was too much, too much of that. You know, driving in Chicago, I don’t know.”
Cardinals: RHP Mike Leake pitches Monday for the first time since he acknowledged after his last outing that he is struggling to maintain optimal body strength between starts. The issue traces back to last year, when Leake was sidelined by shingles and lost some weight and strength. Manager Mike Matheny said Leake’s comment after his shaky performance against the Mets on Wednesday was the first time he had heard of the issue. “It’s something that wasn’t on my radar,” Matheny said. “It’s just something that hadn’t been talked about for quite a while.” Leake is 1-6 with a 5.04 ERA in last 10 starts.
Cardinals: Leake (6-8, 3.39 ERA) gets the ball against Colorado in St. Louis’ first home game since July 9. RHP Antonio Senzatela (10-3, 4.67 ERA) pitches for the Rockies.
Cubs: After Hendricks (4-3, 4.09 ERA) faces RHP Miguel Gonzalez (4-9, 4.89 ERA) in the series opener, RHP John Lackey, RHP Jake Arrieta and LHP Jon Lester start the next three games against the last-place White Sox.
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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap