On and on the innings went, one zero after another, as Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto matched each other in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field on Friday. The Cubs' veteran lefty and the Giants' quirky righty were locked in a scoreless duel, and as the night went on, the question on the mind of everyone watching was: Who would blink first?
In the end, it was Cueto who slipped, as Chicago second baseman Javier Baez took a 92-mph fastball in the eighth and launched it to leftfield, where it sailed through the air and landed in the wire basket just above the ivy on the wall. That run was all the Cubs would need, as they beat San Francisco in Game 1, 1–0.
1. Lester is more
For a while, it looked as if there would be no end to the series opener. Both Lester and Cueto carved their way through the opposing hitters, each putting up seven scoreless frames in which few—if any—scoring opportunities emerged. Lester was helped by some opportunistic Chicago defense, particularly from catcher David Ross, who caught Gorkys Hernandez stealing after his game-opening single, then picked off Conor Gillaspie after his leadoff single in the third.
Lester flirted with trouble in those first three frames, in which he allowed the leadoff hitter to reach every time, and faced his biggest test in the fourth, when the Giants put runners on second and third after a one-out Buster Posey single and then a two-out Angel Pagan line drive that got under the glove of Ben Zobrist in left. Lester recovered to get Brandon Crawford to ground out, though, then set down the next 12 Giants hitters in a row. His final line: Eight innings, five hits, no walks, five strikeouts on just 86 pitches.
Cueto was more than equal to the task through the first seven innings, retiring the first 10 Cubs hitters before a Kris Bryant double in the fourth snapped his streak. Bryant was the only Cubs runner to get into scoring position, and through those first seven frames, he and Baez (who had singled in the fifth) were the only hitters to reach base at all. Hip wiggling and shimmying his way through arguably the toughest lineup in baseball, Cueto struck out 10, including the side in the sixth, without giving up a walk.
The eighth was his downfall, however. After getting Jason Heyward to pop out, Cueto went to a 3–2 count on Baez, then left a fastball in the middle of the plate. Baez didn’t miss, whipping his bat through the strike zone and catapulting the ball to left for the game’s lone run.
2. Giants' bats come up small
Through 18 innings of postseason ball, San Francisco's pitchers have allowed just one run but its offense has managed just three runs, all of which came on Gillaspie's ninth-inning home run in Wednesday's wild-card game against the Mets. The Giants got little going on Friday night against Lester, putting together short at-bats and weak contact with regularity. Between Pagan’s double in the fourth and Posey’s two-out double in the ninth off Aroldis Chapman, 14 San Francisco hitters came to the plate, took their hacks and returned to the dugout with nothing to show for it.
These scoring troubles shouldn’t be a surprise for a Giants team that struggled to string together runs all season and was particularly inept down the stretch. San Francisco hit just .232 in September and averaged only four runs per game. Most concerning was the Giants’ .362 slugging percentage, the second-lowest figure in baseball that month. That includes power outages from Posey (two home runs in 105 September at-bats) and Crawford (zero in 85) and no production at all from Pagan (.190 average), Denard Span (.190) and Joe Panik (.169).
Span and Panik both sat against the lefthanded Lester but will likely be back in the lineup on Saturday against Chicago righty Kyle Hendricks. But the NL ERA leader will likely offer no succor to a lineup desperate for runs, and neither will Game 3 starter Jake Arrieta, the defending NL Cy Young Award winner. San Francisco can not keep hoping that the likes of Cueto and Madison Bumgarner, who shut out the Mets in the wild-card game, will simply keep putting up zeroes forever; it needs to take the pressure off its starters by providing some offense.
3. Second to none
Joe Maddon is the envy of every manager in baseball: With the Cubs' big name regulars struggling—the first six players in the lineup, comprised of five 2016 All-Stars and $184 million man Jason Heyward, combined to go 1-for-18—he could still get a bit hit from a bench player that 29 other teams would kill to have as a starter.
The 23-year-old Baez has started games at all four infield positions this season as well as playing twice in leftfield, and his stellar defense allows Maddon to plug him in wherever he's needed most. In Game 1, that meant Maddon could move fellow super-utility player Zobrist to leftfield and plug Baez in at second, giving him another dangerous bat against Cueto. That bat proved plenty dangerous on Friday and could keep Baez in the lineup as the series continues.