The Chicago Cubs went out and got Jon Lester for these moments. And he delivered in a big way Friday night.
Lester outpitched Johnny Cueto with eight sparkling innings, Javier Baez homered in the eighth and the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants, 1-0, in a tense Game 1 of their NL division series.
Lester retired his last 13 batters in a dominant performance, but the game was scoreless when Baez sent a towering drive into a stiff wind. With a raucous crowd of 42,148 and every player anxiously tracking the flight of the ball, left fielder Angel Pagan ran out of room as it landed in the basket that tops the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley Field.
Baez thought it was gone as soon as the ball left the bat.
“I forgot about the wind,” he said. “The wind’s blowing straight in, and I hit it really good. Good thing it just barely went.”
Cubs relievers in the bullpen in foul territory down the left-field line broke into cheers as Baez rounded the bases with the delirious crowd in a frenzy. Baez then came out of the dugout for a curtain call.
“He’s been pitching me inside. I was just waiting for him to make a mistake and he left it over the plate,” Baez said.
Aroldis Chapman allowed Buster Posey’s two-out double off the ivy in the ninth before Hunter Pence bounced to second for the final out, wrapping a bow on Chicago’s first meaningful game in weeks.
“That’s an awesome baseball game. Playoff baseball,” Lester said. “That was a fun game to be a part of, and obviously really happy to be on this side of it.”
Lester’s $155 million, six-year deal in December 2014 was a key moment in the Cubs’ turnaround from also-ran to contender. They clinched the NL Central title on Sept. 15 and led the majors with 103 wins this year, but have their sights on the franchise’s first World Series crown since 1908.
Cueto was outstanding, following Madison Bumgarner’s four-hitter in San Francisco’s wild-card win at New York with his own impressive gem. The right-hander, deftly varying his delivery to keep the Cubs off balance, struck out 10 and allowed three hits in his second straight complete game in the postseason.
“It was a great ballgame,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “One pitch. I expect these games to be like this.”
Baez’s homer stopped San Francisco’s postseason scoreless streak at 23 innings dating to the World Series in 2014. The Giants also won it all in 2010 and 2012, leading to talk of even-year magic for Bochy’s club, but it was the Cubs with the good fortune on Friday night, a strange turn of events for the usually snake-bitten franchise.
The Giants had at least one hit in each of the first four innings, including leadoff singles in the first three, but Lester held them off each time. The left-hander got some help from his usual catcher, with David Ross throwing out Gorkys Hernandez trying to steal second in the first and picking off wild-card hero Conor Gillaspie at first in the third.
San Francisco had runners on second and third after left fielder Ben Zobrist misplayed Pagan’s sinking liner into a fourth-inning double, but Brandon Crawford bounced out to end the inning.
Cueto retired his first 10 batters and had the Cubs shaking their heads all night long. He also got some timely help from his defense.
Hernandez got revenge on Ross with an outstanding, sliding catch on the warning track in left-center in the third. Kelby Tomlinson, starting at second in place of Joe Panik with the lefty Lester on the mound, robbed Zobrist of a two-out RBI single in the fourth, then took a hit away from Anthony Rizzo with another diving stop in the seventh.
“Cueto just kept making pitches and I had to keep making pitches with him,” Lester said.