Jon Lester gives the Cubs a huge boost in Game 1 nailbiter
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important a victory was for the Cubs on Friday night. They had seen home-field advantage being given away by other teams in the postseason. They knew they’d have another dose of Johnny Cueto later, as well as a large helping of Madison Bumgarner coming up.
Oh, and they might have heard that their franchise has something of a history and that nerves in Chicago would have been raw with a loss going into Game 2.
One swing of the bat by Javy Baez and an excellent night by pitcher Jon Lester gave the Cubs a 1-0 victory over the Giants and a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five National League Division Series. Just like that, breathing passages all over the city opened up again.
Lester and Cueto engaged in a terrific pitching duel at Wrigley Field, matching fastballs, soft curves and veteran wiliness. It might not have been what the Cubs, the big league’s best team in the regular season, had in mind when they got back to business after a four-day layoff. But this is big-boy baseball, and the Giants are a big-boy team.
Cueto didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning. Lester had given up five hits but no runs to that point. Neither had given up a run through six, and neither had allowed a walk. Cueto struck out the side in the sixth.
And so it went.
No surprise. Cueto was a World Series star for the Royals last season. In the regular season, Lester was 10-2 with a 1.74 ERA at Wrigley.
So forget the rust angle for the Cubs or the difficulties of winning a wild-card game and then traveling for the Giants. Give a nod to good pitching.
Finally, in the eighth inning, Baez turned on his heels and sent a Cueto pitch into the left-field basket. He flipped his bat and didn’t even look at the ball, as if he knew it was out. If he did, he was the only one in the park who did. A stiff wind from the northwest did its best to make the ball stay at home.
“Javy absolutely crushed it, and it barely made the basket,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
“I thought it was way farther than that,’’ Baez said.
He said he had been thinking about bunting. Luckily for the Cubs, he thought again.
It was enough for a victory, a first step on what they hope is the road to a World Series title. A loss would have meant a split at best at home and, gulp, and it would have given San Francisco a chance to win the series at home. It still might come to that, but a loss in the opener would have added a lot more stress.
“I kind of figured as we got going that it would come down to one mistake,’’ Lester said. “I think that’s just the beginning of this series. We’re going to be in for it. It’s going to be a grind.’’
The Cubs got a scare in the ninth when closer Aroldis Chapman, whose heat usually melts opposing batters, gave up a double to Buster Posey. But Chapman got Hunter Pence to ground out, and the Cubs headed for their party room.
Lester’s personal catcher, David Ross, was excellent behind the plate Friday night, throwing out Gorkys Hernandez trying to steal second in the first inning and catching Conor Gillaspie leaning too far off first base in the third.
Lester, who has had trouble throwing to first base, threw out Kelby Tomlinson on a grounder in the second inning, even if it was an underhanded throw. In the sixth, he took a one-hopper from Posey in the web of his mitt and ran it to first base. That’s a Lester Web Gem.
He was great Friday, giving up five hits in eight innings. Cueto gave up three hits, but one of them really, really mattered.
“Both of them were outstanding,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Johnny threw a beautiful game. That guy (Baez) got enough of it to get it out of the ballpark. What a job (Cueto) did. Just a beautiful game he pitched. We had a couple chances early. Lester was tough. I thought it would be a low-scoring game.’’
Lester really stood out with runners on base this season. He led the majors by stranding 84.9 percent of baserunners. The Giants left four on base Friday.
“He’s really good at cleaning it up,’’ Maddon said.
He cleans up well. So do the Cubs.