Madison Bumgarner vs. Jake Arrieta called to mind Billy Pierce against Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal dueling Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson facing Fergie Jenkins. Our best against your best, a marquee matchup rarely seen in an era of interleague play, five-man rotations and diminished workloads and expectations.
Their set-to on a postcard-pretty Saturday at Wrigley Field was the main attraction of a Giants-Cubs weekend series that had the trappings of a monumental heavyweight fight two months ago. But the Giants stumbled awkwardly on their way to the showdown. They were swept by the Padres and Pirates and suffered a six-game losing streak and two four-game skids to underscore how the team with baseball’s best record at the All-Star break (57-33) has managed (16-29) in the six weeks since.
Nobody is writing off a team with the Giants’ pedigree, and they have some work to do if they’re to sustain the even-year magic that delivered World Series trophies to San Francisco in 2010, ’12 and ’14. But small ball rules the postseason, and the Giants showed they still have it in a 3-2 victory Saturday.
Brandon Crawford, their unheralded shortstop, singled and stole second, then swiped third against an overshifted infield in the sixth inning. When Arrieta bounced a two-out breaking ball past catcher Willson Contreras as Brandon Belt batted, Crawford jogged home with what proved to be the winning run.
The Cubs had managed a small-ball run in the fifth when Javy Baez scooted home from second after third baseman Eduardo Nunez muffed a barehand pickup of Arrieta’s 50-foot infield single. But sluggers and small ball are seldom compatible, as Anthony Rizzo demonstrated in the ninth.
Rizzo drew a walk as the leadoff hitter and made a wide turn of second on Dexter Fowler’s sacrifice, thinking third might be uncovered as Nunez fielded the bunt. But catcher Buster Posey was a step ahead of him. Posey got close enough to third to dissuade Rizzo, who’d gone too far past second to get back as Joe Panik retired Fowler, then fired to Crawford at second to nail Rizzo and erase the potential tying run.
“We needed that win in the worst way,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after the third consecutive one-run nail-biter of the series. “Great game, great intensity, great matchup. With the way things have been going for us, we can use a little luck.”
Bumgarner (14-8) got the win and Arrieta (16-6) the loss, though neither saw the seventh inning after throwing 103 pitches apiece. Bumgarner’s 103rd was strike three to Matt Szczur with runners at second and third to end the sixth.
“Bum was on fumes at that point,” Bochy said. “Huge strikeout.”
There are myriad reasons for the Giants’ second-half troubles, most notably the surgery-requiring hamstring injury that cost them Hunter Pence’s lively presence and productive bat for 48 games. The bullpen has been an iffy proposition. The Giants didn’t think they’d need another starting pitcher after a nine-figure winter spending spree for Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, but as Matt Cain and Jake Peavy continued to leak oil, they made a deadline deal for lefty Matt Moore, sending credible third baseman Matt Duffy to Tampa Bay.
Run production has been a seasonlong concern — the Giants are averaging 4.5 runs to the Cubs’ 5.1. Duffy doesn’t offer much pop for a corner infielder, but replacing him with Nunez doesn’t help a lineup that won’t feature a 100-RBI guy for the fourth consecutive year, hasn’t had a 30-homer guy since Barry Bonds (45) in 2004 and lacks a middle-of-the-order bopper to match Rizzo or Kris Bryant.
The Giants have kept Bryant and Rizzo in the park thus far.
Bumgarner’s left-handed craftsmanship kept Rizzo on the bench to start Game 3, enabling Joe Maddon to concoct one of his evening-at-the-improv lineups. It cost him in the first inning when acting third baseman Tommy La Stella airmailed a throw to first after fielding Pence’s chopper, enabling Angel Pagan to score the game’s first run.
Cueto (14-5) pitches Sunday as the Giants go for a split and a 4-3 edge for the season. The Cardinals also have a game on the Cubs in their season series with six left. Amid the MVP debates, the Cy Young discussions and the hoo-hah over how many games the Cubs will win, Saturday reminded us that they haven’t won anything yet.