Saturday, October 8, 2016

The San Francisco Giants face the Chicago Cubs in Game Two of their National League division series tonight at Wrigley Field. Game time is slated for 7 PM CDT (8 PM EDT).  The Cubs took the series lead with a tight, 1-0 win last night as Javier Baez' eighth-inning home run broke up a magnificent effort from Johnny Cueto and made a winner out of Jon Lester, who had matched Cueto zero-for-zero in a superb pitching duel marked by sharp, stellar fielding on both sides.  

Cueto allowed only three hits, struck out ten, didn't walk a batter, and allowed only one man to reach third.  That was in the fourth when Kris Bryant doubled with one out, advanced to third on a groundout, then was stranded when Kelby Tomlinson ranged far to his left and turned a possible RBI single from Ben Zobrist into a routine putout at first.  Baez had given a hint of what was to come in the third, when his drive to deep left-center was snared by the running, sliding Gorkys Hernandez, the defensive play of the game and one that prompted a congratulatory cap-twirl from the demonstrative Cueto. Other than that, it was a lot of swinging and missing by the Cubs, until the eighth. With one out, Baez had a full count when he crushed a no-doubt-about-it shot in the direction of Waveland Avenue. But thanks to a stiff wind, there was doubt, lots of it, until the ball settled into the webbing above the left field wall, just above the despondent Angel Pagan.

Lester, for his part, was not dominant, but he was utterly resilient. The Giants got the leadoff man on base in each of the first three innings, and never advanced him as far as second. Hernandez, who opened the game with a bunt single, was easily thrown out stealing by catcher David Ross.  Hunter Pence went nowhere in the second, and in the third the Cubs pulled off some slick defensive chicanery from the mind of manager Joe Maddon. Conor Gillaspie, Wednesday night's hero, singled to right to open the frame. With Cueto up to bunt, Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo switched positions, the left-handed Rizzo moving onto the grass immediately to the left of the pitcher's mound. With great ceremony, the Cubs sent out a batboy to swap out Rizzo's first-baseman's glove for a standard glove as per the rules. The unusual procedure thus complete-- how many left-handed second basemen do you see over the course of a season, anyway?-- Cueto squared up, let a ball go by, and catcher Ross immediately fired a throw to first, where Baez had slipped behind Gillaspie and promptly tagged him out. Napping? Deked? Distracted? No matter. Out.            

The best chance came in the fourth. Buster Posey singled with one out, and an out later Pagan dropped a soft line drive into left that got past Zobrist. Posey took third-- it will be debated whether he might have scored-- and with second and third, Lester got Brandon Crawford  to end it.  As with most great pitchers, Lester got better as he went along; he didn't allow another baserunner after that and, like Cueto, he didn't walk anybody. In fact, there was not a single base on balls issued in this game, about which more presently.  

Though he'd thrown only 86 pitches, Lester got a congratulatory hug from Maddon after the eighth, and with a 1-0 lead Aroldis Chapman took over. The 100-MPH ace closer is one of the best in the game, but still the Giants had to be optimistic. They'd beaten the Mets' bullpen under similar circumstances just two nights earlier, after all. Getting Lester out of there had to be a tonic, no matter who succeeded him. And despite his well-earned rep, Chapman has one weakness-- a tendency to be wild.  Sure enough, Hernandez worked him hard leading off the top of the ninth, holding up his swing on ball four to take the walk. That's how Hernandez, Chapman, Ross, plate umpire Todd Tichenor, and most of the 42,148 in attendance and millions on TV saw it, anyway. But first-base umpire Alan Porter didn't see it that way. He ruled Hernandez had swung, and it was strike three. One out later, Posey ripped the first pitch he saw in the same direction as Baez' homer, where it caromed off the wall for a double, easily deep enough to score a runner from first, had there been a runner on first. Instead, it was tying run in scoring position, two out, and Chapman, who hit 103 on the radar gun, got Pence on a grounder back to the box to end it.

It was a great game, well-played, and is already being hailed as a classic, but we Giants fans may perhaps be forgiven if we'd prefer a little less tension and tightness in tonight's game. It will be Jeff Samardzija taking the baton at Wrigley Field, where he started 41 games in years past for the Cubs. League ERA leader Kyle Hendricks, a right-hander with a 16-8 record, opposes. The Giants need to square up this series before it shifts to San Francisco Monday night. They must win at least one game at Wrigley to win this series, after all. Why not tonight?


Both American League series could be over by tomorrow. The Toronto Blue Jays have gone on a home run barrage in Texas, beating the Rangers twice amid liberal applications of the long ball. Now they return home with a chance to finish it out. This team reached the ALCS last year; it ought to surprise no one if they get back there now, wild-card or no. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians have gone the other way, beating the Boston Red Sox with good pitching against the game's highest-scoring lineup. Josh Tomlin gets the chance to close it out tomorrow; we'll see if the return to Fenway Park awakens the Boston bats.

Despite a so-so start from Clayton Kershaw, the LA Dodgers hung on to beat the Nationals at Washington last night, 4-3. Relievers Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Pedro Baez, and especially Kanley Jensen, who earned a five-out save, held the Nats scoreless over the last four. Max Scherzer, victim of one bad inning, took a tough loss. Tanner Roark, the answer to a Giants' trivia question, will try to even it up today against Rich Hill.  

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