Over the course of 193 pitches Friday night, the Giants and Cubs remained locked in a scoreless tie. Then, one swing sent a ball flying through the chilly Chicago night, a tremor through Wrigley Field and the Giants to an early deficit in their National League Division Series.
Javier Baez homered off Johnny Cueto with one out in the eighth inning, a towering fly ball that cleared the left-field wall by inches, snapping a scoreless duel between Cueto and Cubs left-hander Jon Lester. Flame-throwing Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman stranded the tying run on second base in the ninth, and the Giants fell 1-0 in Game 1 of the NLDS.
Despite a reputation for playing with their backs against the wall in the postseason, the Giants had lost only two openers in nine previous playoff series under manager Bruce Bochy. They will send Jeff Samardzija to the mound hoping to even the series in Game 2 on Saturday against Kyle Hendricks, owner of the majors’ lowest ERA this season.
“It was a great ballgame, it was,” Bochy said. “We played well, made some good defensive plays. We had some guys out there early in the game, just couldn’t get a hit to finish them off.”
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Cueto struck out nine batters over his first seven scoreless innings and retired Jason Heyward on a popup to start the eighth when Baez stepped up and hit a full-count fastball, Cueto’s 108th pitch, high into the Chicago night. Left fielder Angel Pagan retreated slowly toward the wall, eying it as though he might have a play, before watching it carry over his head and fall into the grating at the top of the brick wall.
Pagan said he thought Baez’s ball might stay in the park.
“It was so close,” Pagan said. “But the reality is that basket’s been there for so many years. Nothing we can do about it.”
An announced crowd of 42,148, tensely quiet most of the night as Cueto and Lester dueled, exploded with a roar. Cueto finished the inning, but with a newfound advantage, the Cubs turned to Chapman, who came out of the bullpen firing 103-mph fastballs. He struck out Gorkys Hernandez on a check swing and retired a hobbled Eduardo Nunez on a groundout before Buster Posey lined a double off the wall in left-center field.
The ensuing hush was momentary, as Baez fielded Hunter Pence’s chopper to the right side and fired a throw to first base, ending the game.
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said he thought Posey’s double “had a shot” at being a home run, “but it just had a little too much topspin. You hope it’ll make it over to that basket, but it didn’t quite get there.”
Lester threw just 86 pitches through eight scoreless innings, though the Giants had their chances early. Hernandez led off the game by pushing a bunt to the left of Lester for a single. Then Hernandez tried stealing second but was thrown out easily by David Ross.
It was the first of three leadoff singles by the Giants in the first three innings. Pence was stranded in the second and Conor Gillaspie was picked off first base in the third inning by Ross, who snapped a throw behind him at first.
The Giants’ best chance came in the fourth, when Posey singled and Pagan hit a two-out blooper that bounced under the glove of Ben Zobrist in left field. Posey, though, appeared to slow at second base and had to stop at third as Zobrist retrieved the ball, and Brandon Crawford grounded out to end the inning.
Posey said he hesitated at second because if Zobrist had stopped the ball, he would not have tried for third.
Against Lester, Bochy deployed platoon matchups, starting Hernandez over Denard Span in center field and Kelby Tomlinson over Joe Panik at second base. Both replacements made an impact defensively, with Hernandez robbing Ross of extra bases with a sliding basket catch on the warning track in the third inning.
Cueto retired his first 10 batters before Kris Bryant laced a double to left in the fourth. After Anthony Rizzo grounded out, Zobrist hit a shot to the left of Tomlinson, who made a diving stab of it and threw Zobrist out, pumping his fist as he ran back to the dugout. Tomlinson also robbed Rizzo in the seventh inning with another diving play in shallow right field, where he was playing in a shift.
After Bryant’s double, chants of “Cue-to” began to sound briefly around Wrigley Field – a gambit that Pirates fans used effectively against the right-hander during the 2013 wild-card game when Cueto was pitching for the Reds. It was less successful on this night, as Cueto matched zeroes with Lester through seven innings.
As was often the case this season, Cueto appeared to get stronger as the game went on. He struck out two batters in the fifth, pitching around a two-out single from Baez, and struck out the side in the sixth, all swinging, finishing that inning at 89 pitches.
Their duel would end in the eighth, though, and the Giants will now have to do what they could not in the ninth inning Friday night: Mount a comeback.
“I don’t think anybody’s getting too discouraged about losing the first game,” said Belt. “There’s still a long ways to go.”
Matt Kawahara: 916-321-1015, @matthewkawahara
Today’s NLDS games
Game 2: Los Angeles at Washington, 1:08 p.m., FS1, 1320
Game 2: Giants at Chicago Cubs, 5:08 p.m., FS1, 680