Angel Pagan thought the ball was coming back. He eyed it arcing highly through the Chicago night as he drifted onto the warning track in left field and at the last second jumped, his back ruffling the Wrigley Field ivy, one thought in his mind.
"Catch," the Giants’ left fielder said. "It was so close. I thought I was right there."A matter of inches was all it took to separate the Giants and Cubs on Friday night. Javier Baez’s towering drive carried just over Pagan’s head and wedged in the metal grating at the top of the brick wall, several feet short of the bleachers yet far enough for a home run off of Johnny Cueto that stood as the only run in Game 1 of this N.L. Division Series.
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Pagan broke into the majors with the Cubs. He has patrolled the outfield at Wrigley Field for the last 10 years, and in that time has developed an appreciation both for the bleacher-crawling fans and the quirks of their ancient stadium. In the Giants’ quiet clubhouse after their 1-0 loss, Pagan invoked that history.
"The reality is that basket’s been there for so many years," he said. "That basket’s saved a lot of people, getting home runs. The reality is he (Baez) got lucky. It was his night. It was their night. It was a close, competitive game. But they were the better team."
How close? Just like each of the four games these teams played at Wrigley Field in early September, their NLDS opener was decided by one run. Cueto and Jon Lester swapped scoreless innings through seven, Cueto finishing with 10 stirkeouts and three hits allowed and Lester sailing through eight scoreless innings on 86 pitches.
Even in the eighth, Cueto seemed in such control, allowing just two hits to that point, that Baez said he went up with one out thinking about bunting for a hit. He scrapped the idea when he saw third baseman Conor Gillaspie playing in, opting to swing away instead.
"I knew Cueto was pitching me inside all day," Baez said. "Just waiting for him to make a mistake, and he finally did."
The mistake was a full-count fastball that ran back over the plate, and Baez put a mighty swing on it, punctuated by a bat drop that did not go unnoticed by one Giant.
"I think Baez thought his was going out a lot further than it did according to his reaction," catcher Buster Posey said.
Baez acknowledged as much, saying that in the moment he didn’t think about the winds swirling above Wrigley Field.
"I thought that I hit it really good, I thought it was way farther than that, but when I saw (Pagan) jump I was like, no way that ball didn’t stay in," Baez said. "And it barely went out. But I still will take it. Didn’t mean to show anybody up, obviously, but it was a big hit for us."
Posey’s comment about Baez’s reaction came after he was asked about his own drive to left-center, off Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the ninth, which ricocheted off the wall for a two-out double. Posey said he thought he might have gotten enough of the pitch for a home run that would have tied the game. First baseman Brandon Belt and manager Bruce Bochy said the same.
"I thought it had a shot," Belt said. "But I think it just had a little bit too much topspin and came down right there at the end. He put a good swing on it, and you hope that it’d make it over into that basket. But it just didn’t quite get there."
A matter of inches, again, on a night filled with close calls. Lester nearly blinked in the fourth inning, when Posey singled and Pagan hit a flare to left that got past Ben Zobrist, but Posey held at third base after hesitating at second to read the play. Shortstop Addison Russell then made a sure-handed play on Brandon Crawford’s chopper to end the inning.
The Giants did not have another baserunner until the ninth. They nearly had two. Facing fire-balling Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, leadoff hitter Gorkys Hernandez worked a full-count and tried to check his swing on a 100 mile per hour fastball, staring in disbelief as first-base umpire Alan Porter signaled a swing.
"It’s a tough one," said Posey, who watched from the top step of the dugout. "I haven’t looked at a replay. That’s a tough one, I’ll just say that. Seemed like it was really close."
The Giants played well enough to keep the game that way. Hernandez, starting in center field over Denard Span against a left-hander, made a sliding catch on the warning track in the third inning. Kelby Tomlinson, starting at second base over Joe Panik, made a pair of diving plays to his left.
Cueto used a mix of pitches, including a particularly effective changeup, to mostly baffle a dangerous Cubs lineup until the eighth inning, when one errant pitch, and a few inches on a fly ball that traveled an estimated 381 feet, gave the Cubs a 1-0 division series lead.
"It seems pretty close," Belt said. "I think they rely on that as well, if I’m not mistaken -- just by metrics they’re probably the best defensive team in the league, and obviously they have good pitching. That’ll carry you deep in the playoffs. It’s just a matter of getting those timely hits. And they got the job done tonight."
* The Giants did not help themselves with their baserunning in the early innings. Posey said he hesitated at second base on Pagan’s double in the fourth trying to read the play.
"It’s a tough one," Posey said. "If it’s short-hopped and he picks it, I’m not going to be going to third on that play."
Asked if he would have scored earlier in the season on fresher legs, Posey said: "I can’t really answer that."
The Giants put their leadoff hitter on against Lester in each of the first three innings but twice saw him thrown out on the bases. Hernandez was caught stealing second on a good throw by David Ross in the first inning. In the third, Ross picked Conor Gillaspie off of first base when Cueto pulled back a bunt attempt on an outside pitch.
"Smart," Gillaspie said. "Obviously I wasn’t expecting that. But I mean, we were trying to create a throw over there or try to get something stirred up to create an opportunity for ourselves. It’s smart, it’s a good play, and it got me."
Bochy said trying to put pressure on Lester, who is notoriously averse to throwing to the bases, was part of the game plan.
"When you’re in a game like this, you have to try things," Bochy said. "We know Lester doesn’t throw over there much. But you still have to get a good jump."
* Cueto didn’t have much to say about the pitch that decided Friday’s game.
"Nothing," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "He hit a home run."
Apart from one pitch, Cueto was mostly dominant. His 10 strikeouts were a career-high for a postseason start. With nobody on and two outs in the top of the eighth, Bochy sent Cueto up to hit for himself despite having Hunter Strickland warming in the bullpen.
"The way he was throwing, the way he felt, that’s why he hit," Bochy said.
* With his ninth-inning double, Posey is now 6-for-11 lifetime against Chapman. Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he was aware of those numbers when Posey came up to face Chapman on Friday night in a one-run game.
"It’s funny, though, when the hitter has good numbers against you, you probably are throwing bad pitches," Maddon said. "That was just a hanging breaking ball. Had it been a better pitch, it might have been a better result for us.
"Under those circumstances, absolutely you want him to go after him."
Posey said he hit a slider for the double -- no small feat when you have to account for Chapman’s 103 mph fastball.
"It’s not staying back," Posey said. "It’s still a 90 mph pitch. You just see it and react."
Asked if he can explain his success against Chapman, Posey shook his head: "Nope. I don’t, nah, nothing I can pinpoint."
* Friday was eerily similar to Wednesday’s wild-card game, when Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard traded zeroes until the Giants won on Gillaspie’s three-run homer in the ninth. This time, the Giants allowed the game-winning home run.
"As good as the pitchers are that we’ve faced, you know there’s a chance that’s going to happen," Belt said. "Lester was good tonight. Syndergaard was good the other night. Like I said, you just try to capitalize on their mistakes, and we didn’t do that tonight."
It doesn’t get easier for the Giants in Game 2, as they will face Kyle Hendricks, a right-hander who led the majors this season with a 2.13 ERA. Jake Arrieta, last season’s Cy Young winner, awaits them in Game 3. The Giants know they have their work cut out for them.
"That’s normally, I think, what you see when you have two teams with good pitching go at it, low scoring games, one-run ballgames," Bochy said. "And I expect it to be the same from this point on.
"Tomorrow we’re going to face another good one, the day after. You scratch and claw for runs, and hopefully we find a way to win these games."