CHICAGO -- Joe Mather delivered the game-winning hit, but it was pinch-hitter Bryan LaHair's patient at-bat in the ninth inning that may have won the game Monday night for the Cubs over the defending-champion Cardinals.
Mather cracked a two-run walk-off single with two outs in the ninth to lift the Cubs to a 3-2 victory.
With one out in the inning and Chicago trailing, 2-1, Cardinals closer Jason Motte walked both LaHair and Geovany Soto. LaHair, who was pinch-hitting for Jeff Baker, fouled off six straight pitches in a 12-pitch at-bat before drawing the free pass. One out later, Mather drove a 2-2 pitch up the middle to plate both runners.
"LaHair's at-bat was unbelievable," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "To battle that kind of velocity and work a walk out of it, and Geo, too. They were great at-bats. They weren't going up there just hacking. Obviously, Super Joe came through as he did in Spring Training all the time."
Mather delivered key hits this spring, but those games don't count. Plus, he was able to come through against the team that drafted him in 2001 and employed him through 2010. That justified a postgame shaving cream pie to the face.
"I have a lot of good friends over there," Mather said of the Cardinals. "It does feel good. When it comes down to it, we won a big league game and the self satisfaction is secondary. The win is first, but it felt good to do it against those guys."
Mather connected on Motte's 31st pitch of the inning.
"Closers usually don't throw that many pitches," Mather said. "They're usually so electric, it's hard to stay in the at-bat. Bryan fouled off [six pitches]. That's way more work than [Motte] is used to doing. If Bryan doesn't have that at-bat and same with Geo, we don't get to that point."
LaHair, who had faced Motte in the Cubs' series in St. Louis and grounded out, knew Motte had the edge.
"He's one of the best there is," LaHair said. "He's got great stuff, he throws really hard. I faced him the other day, and I was in and out of there quick and didn't have much of a chance. I did my homework and tried to focus on certain things."
Said Motte: "I made some really good pitches, and he just did a good job of fouling them off and keeping himself in the at-bat. ... It's one of those things where you kind of have to tip your cap to him because he went up there and battled through that at-bat just like I was battling out there and staying alive long enough for me to throw ball four."
Rookie Rafael Dolis (1-1) picked up his first Major League win in relief of Matt Garza, who deserved better, but Jamie Garcia stymied the Cubs for much of the night.
The Cubs outhit the Cardinals, but couldn't string them together, leaving Garza in danger of a hard-luck loss. The right-hander now has given up three or fewer earned runs in his last 14 starts at Wrigley Field and has a 5-3 record and 1.84 ERA over that stretch. It's the 10th time in those 14 games that he's served up two runs or fewer.
"Garza pitched a great game again, and it's another start with nothing to show for it," Sveum said.
The right-hander wasn't sure he was going to be able to go deep after a 23-pitch first inning.
"My job is to go out there and take my team as deep as I can and tonight, I didn't think I was going to get to the fifth," Garza said.
"We just couldn't stack a lot against Garza," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We knew he was a good pitcher, knew we had our hands full going into this thing and we thought we had enough room right there."
Sveum loaded his lineup with right-handers against Garcia, who gave up six hits, walked one and struck out four over 7 2/3 innings. Entering Monday's game, left-handed hitters were 7-for-13 against Garcia, while right-handers were batting .291 (16-for-55).
The Cubs struck in the first, scoring in the first on Alfonso Soriano's sacrifice fly. Skip Schumaker singled to open the Cardinals fourth, reached third on Matt Holliday's double and scored on Carlos Beltran's groundout. The Cardinals got a minor scare when David Freese, who missed time last season with a broken left hand, was hit on the right hand by a pitch. He stayed in the game and Yadier Molina followed with a sacrifice fly to take a 2-1 lead.
This was the Cubs' first victory after trailing entering the ninth since last Sept. 10 against the Mets.
"I think it was a little more growth there for our young club," Garza said. "That's a huge step for us."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.