Cubs open title chase with just the right mix of talent and timing
- The Cubs took their first step toward what they hope is a long postseason run on Friday, catching just the right breaks late to ride a gem from Jon Lester to an NLDS Game 1 win.
CHICAGO — If you believe this is the Cubs’ year, because of magic or ghosts or just because, this was all the evidence you needed. Two swings, a few minutes apart.
The first came in the bottom of the eighth. Cubs second baseman Javier Baez, known more for his glove than his bat, hit a bomb toward leftfielld. Baez acted like the ball would land on Waveland Avenue; he took so long to leave the batter’s box, I thought his Uber was late. He said afterward, “I was so focused on that at-bat that I completely forgot about the wind.” The ball landed in the basket above the left-field fence—barely out, but out nonetheless.
The second swing came in the top of the ninth. Giants catcher Buster Posey, known for being Giants catcher Buster Posey, hit a shot to the wall, but it landed in the ivy for a double. Posey never scored.
That was the whole difference in the Cubs’ 1–0 Game 1 victory. If the Wrigley Field wind were in a slightly different mood, maybe Posey hits the home run, Baez hits a long fly-out, the Giants win the game, and we’re talking about San Francisco’s even-year brilliance again.
“You never know here,” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “The wind can play a big role.”
Then he laughed and said, “Love that basket. Thank God for that basket.”
You would not put those baskets in a new ballpark, but they are part of the Wrigley experience. Maybe that’s another sign—the Cubs won this in a way that could only happen in their park. Sometimes, it’s just your night. Sometimes, it’s just your year. The Cubs need 10 more wins to be World Series champions for the first time in quite a while, and they’re going to need a few pinches of good fortune to do it.
And yet …
You have a much better chance of getting those breaks if you are the best team in baseball, as the Cubs clearly are. And if you look closer at Game 1, you can find little ways that the Cubs’ superiority tipped the game in their favor.
Start with Johnny Cueto. The Giants did, and he was magnificent. Cueto mixed his pitches and tried all sorts of deliveries; it felt like every pitch began in a different way but ended up the same, with the Cubs flailing.
Through seven innings, Cueto had thrown 99 pitches. He was up third in the top of the eighth. If Giants manager Bruce Bochy had the Cubs’ bullpen, maybe he pinch-hits for Cueto there, but Bochy’s bullpen has been leaking oil for two months, and so he stuck with his starter.
It was a smart play. But Cueto threw 118 pitches, one shy of his season high. Was Cueto tired? Well, his 109th pitch was one of his worst of the night, a fastball over the center of the plate. Baez sent it into the basket in leftfield.
The Cubs’ Jon Lester only needed 86 pitches to get through eight innings, but manager Joe Maddon didn’t even have a decision to make for the ninth. He went to the game’s scariest closer, Aroldis Chapman, who did his usual Fast and Furious act through the ninth. Posey hit that deep double, but that was it.
And throughout the game, there were moments when the Giants could have jumped ahead but didn’t. The only way the Giants could have done a worse job running the bases is if they ran from third to first.
Then there was Ross, nicknamed Grandpa, who is retiring at the end of this, his 15th season. He is a backup catcher and an All-Star quote. You can’t make the playoffs with a team full of David Rosses, but sometimes, in the right role, they can help you win a championship.
Ross made a bunch of winning plays in Game 1. He caught Gorkys Hernandez stealing and picked Conor Gillaspie off first base. He said later that a veteran needs to show the young guys how to embrace the postseason, and he and Lester did that. Likely NL MVP Kris Bryant said he saw Lester “crack a smile in the dugout. I don’t know if he’s ever done that.”
Bryant hit .176 in last year’s postseason, which is not a big deal until somebody decides it is. It only takes a dozen or so games for a player to get tagged with an October reputation. Sometimes in baseball, a player gets a tag he doesn’t really deserve, then feels the pressure to show he doesn’t deserve it, and that makes him play so poorly that he finally does deserve it.
The Cubs have done everything they can to avoid those traps. Maddon’s mantras are all around Wrigley. Never Let the Pressure Exceed the Pleasure. His spring-training wink at the hype, “Try Not to Suck,” is all over t-shirts and has become Try Not To Suck-tober.
Did that help win Game 1? Is that why Baez was so calm that he didn’t even charge a grounder he probably should have charged, nearly allowing an infield single? Is it why Baez was able to hit it in the first place? He said he thought about bunting, but Gillaspie was playing in at third, and he figured Cueto might make a mistake, “and he finally did.”
The Cubs could be down 1–0 now, with the possibility of carrying a 2–0 deficit into Game 3 against Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco. Now they know Bumgarner can’t end their season in Game 3. Maybe that helps them play better in Game 2.
Maybe the wind was the difference in Game 1, or maybe it was the Cubs’ superior talent and depth. The Giants know as well as anybody: It doesn’t matter. One down. Ten to go. Don’t worry about history. Just try not to suck.