The Wrigley Field faithful wanted something easier Saturday night, something stirring but easier, if that wasn’t asking too much. Something to enjoy without having to worry about the pernicious effects of stress on the body.
Friday against the Giants had been a little too hard on the nervous system, even if it had ended in a 1-0 Cubs’ victory. The Javy Baez basket-case home run was nice, but it didn’t show up until the eighth inning and that whole high-wire act with Aroldis Chapman in the ninth was a little much.
So easier is what was called for Saturday and easier indeed seemed to be on the way. Right up until harder decided to get involved in what would end up being a 5-2 victory. The Cubs are up 2-0 in their best-of-five National League Division Series, but it doesn’t feel — what’s the technical term? – completely 2-0-ish. Maybe that has something to do with Madison Bumgarner hovering and Johnny Cueto somewhere in the distance.
The Cubs jumped to a 4-0 lead Saturday, then watched the Giants cut the deficit to two runs and then watched Kyle Hendricks, the pitcher with the lowest earned-run average in baseball, get knocked out of the game in the fourth inning by a line drive to his right forearm. X-rays were negative. So were moods among some of the 42,392 fans at that point.
So easier? Easy there, tiger.
This game wasn’t going to be good for the ticker, if you were a Cubs fan. It certainly didn’t look as if it would be good for the team. And then, for no other reason than these are the Cubs and they seem to make the best of bad situations, Travis Wood, Hendricks’ pitching replacement, hit a solo home run in the fourth. Of course he did.
The only other reliever to hit a postseason home run in Major League Baseball history was Rosy Ryan of the New York Giants in Game 3 of the 1924 World Series. But, then, you knew that.
The Cubs move on to San Francisco with that 2-0 lead in their pocket. Notice that there is no adjective before “2-0 lead.” Not “commanding’’ or “impressive.’’ Not even “relaxed.’’ Especially not that. They’ll face postseason luminary Bumgarner on Monday night. The Cubs might be in the driver’s seat in this series, but Bumgarner has one squeezed hand on the steering wheel.
There will be challenges for this team, and if you didn’t think there would be, you really need to get out of that fantasy world of yours and take a stroll.
Take a stroll through Saturday at Wrigley. Odd things ruled the night. In the fifth, Bumgarner pinch-hit for reliever George Kontos, who had taken over for former Cub Jeff Samardzija, who had only lasted two innings. Bumgarner hit a grounder to third baseman Kris Bryant, who fumbled the ball, then threw it well away from first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Two errors on one play. Of course.
Baez would have had a double in the sixth inning if he hadn’t paused to watch the ball fly to left field, just as he had done the night before on the homer that barely made it out of the playing field. He was thrown out at second. Kid, you might want to stop that stuff. Giants reliever Hunter Strickland threw hard and inside to Baez in the eighth, just in case Baez didn’t get the message.
So, no, the Cubs aren’t doing easy these days, for any number of reasons, the Giants’ talent and experience being two of them. The playoffs demand a lot from a team. And this isn’t going to be a coronation, no matter how badly Cubs fans want it to be.
Manager Joe Maddon, who loves a little madness, was in his element Saturday, bringing pitchers in and out of the game as if he were a doctor seeing patients. He ended up using six, including Chapman in the ninth. You get the distinct impression Maddon doesn’t like easier. You get the impression he would rotate baggers at the grocery store if given the opportunity.
After the game, he said he wanted the Cubs to play the same way they’ve been playing all season. No one can say that the Cubs in two playoff games have looked like the Cubs of 103 regular-season victories. It’s an extremely small sample size, but it does bring home the point that the difference between success and failure in the playoffs is small.
“We’ve got to win three now,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “We were hoping for a split. That didn’t happen. But we’ve done it before.’’
They have. In 2012, they were down 0-2 to the Reds, then won three in a row. But these Cubs aren’t those Reds.
“It’s baseball,’’ Hendricks said. “Anything can happen. You can’t let up one bit.’’
Jake Arrieta will face Bumgarner in Game 3, and it figures to be quite the matchup. Mostly, it figures to be quite hard for the Cubs. Maybe they’ll do easy this time.