CHICAGO — As Travis Wood stepped to the plate, Cubs bullpen catcher Chad Noble said, “He’s gonna hit a home run.” This was silly. Wood is a relief pitcher. His last extra-base hit came in 2014, and the last time a reliever hit a postseason home run was 1924. But this is a time of crazy predictions; everybody and his great-grandmother is picking the Cubs to win the World Series.
On the next pitch, Wood knocked an 86-mile-per-hour George Kontos cutter over the fence.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said.
The story takes on a mystical quality when you learn that Kontos is from the Chicago area, and his brother was once coached by Steve Bartman. Yes, that Steve Bartman. But Edwards says Noble predicts home runs “all the time.” He just happened to get this one right.
He picked a good night to predict something crazy. In a strange game where only the final score made sense, the Cubs beat the Giants, 5–2, to open a 2–0 National League Division Series lead. The dominant stories of the game were pitchers hitting and pitchers getting hit. I bet the Giants didn’t have Wood’s bat in their scouting report.
It wasn’t just Wood. Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who gets teased by his teammates for his inability to pull the ball, hit a two-RBI single. And in the fifth inning, Giants manager Bruce Bochy asked ace Madison Bumgarner to pinch-hit. Bumgarner, one of the best hitting pitchers of his era, smacked a hard ground ball to third base and ended up reaching second on an error. (I thought Bumgarner might score when Brandon Belt hit a towering shot to right field, but Belt got under the ball slightly, and Cubs rightfielder Jason Heyward easily settled under it for a putout that surely had tremendous Sabermetric value.)
We didn’t think we would see Bumgarner on the field at all in Chicago. Yet he has loomed over this series from the moment the matchup was set.
If you’re a baseball fan, the two scariest sights in the game are Scott Boras talking to your owner and Madison Bumgarner on the mound. He has a 0.88 postseason ERA since the start of the 2014 playoffs. The Cubs did not want to take an 0–2 deficit or even a 1–1 series tie into Game 3 against Bumgarner at AT&T Park.
Now? Now it’s all OK. Now they can’t really get Bumgarner-ed out of the postseason. Even if he beats them in Game 3—no sure thing, with Jake Arrieta on the mound for the Cubs—Chicago has no reason to panic. It has Jon Lester ready for Game 4, Hendricks for Game 5, and Aroldis Chapman ready to close out either game.
Hendricks had a frightening moment when he was hit in the pitching arm by a line drive; he left the game but appears to be OK. When he left, Wood came in and scored one more run than he gave up.
It’s been that kind of year, and that kind of series so far. In Games 1 and 2, the Cubs got their feet wet and are in no danger of drowning. Everything could change in San Francisco, in the best atmosphere in the sport. But the Cubs, loose all year, should not feel any extra pressure as they head west.
And the Giants … well, who are we kidding? Pressure is a punch line to them. They haven’t lost a playoff series since 2003. They can count on Bumgarner now and worry about the rest later.
“We have a lot of guys here that love playing together,” outfielder Hunter Pence said. “We’re going to gather up everything we’ve got and come with it.”
As Pence spoke, teammate Gregor Blanco noticed that the collar on Pence’s polo shirt was turned up. Blanco fixed it for him. Blanco has played a part in the Giants’ even-year brilliance—he helped them win the World Series in 2012 and 2014—but he has also been a beneficiary of it. In the ninth inning of Game 7 of the ’14 World Series, he misplayed an Alex Gordon single; the ball bounced past him, and Gordon ended up on third. If Gordon had scored there and the Royals went on to win, Blanco would be one of the biggest goats in baseball history. Instead, Bumgarner got Salvador Perez to pop out, Gordon was stranded on third, and Blanco became a champagne-soaked footnote.
The Giants have not always been great in the postseason, and they have not always been clutch. They have just been great enough and clutch enough.
Pence was asked if there is something in the Giants’ DNA that enables them to come through in these situations.
“I don’t know,” Pence said. “I know we have a lot of guys that love to play. We enjoy playing with each other. We enjoy our fans, our city. We enjoy the energy that they bring. And we’ve got a lot of guys that are pretty good.”
That combination won championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The problem is that the Cubs also enjoy playing with each other, and enjoy the energy of their fans and city. And they also have a lot of guys who are a little better.