CHICAGO -- Bruce Bochy walked out of the interview room and began the winding journey back to the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. It is a perilous walk for a 6-foot-3 man, and Bochy hunched and ducked over and over again, missing jutting pipes and low ceilings an inch at a time.
The margin between normalcy and pain is so small at Wrigley, where so many thousands have walked the hallowed hallways. Before batting practice, one of Bochy's relievers smacked his forehead on a slanted overhang in the dugout. Bochy avoided that fate as he walked back to his office, but he did not win the game of inches on the field.
Javier Baez's game-winning homer landed in a basket separating the bleachers from Angel Pagan's glove. An inning later, the potential tying run went down on a narrow check-swing call. The Cubs closed it out, 1-0, taking Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
The teams have played five times over the past five weeks, every contest decided by a run. The Cubs have won four of them, and they have done so with a formula that is straight out of the Giants’ postseason playbook. Lockdown starting pitching. Mistake-free defense. One big hit at the right time.
“It seems pretty close,” first baseman Brandon Belt said. "They rely on (all that) as well. By the metrics, they probably have the best defensive team in the league, and obviously they have good pitching. That’ll carry you deep into the playoffs, and then it’s just a matter of getting those timely hits. They got the job done tonight.”
Two nights after they pitched a shutout and advanced with one swing of the bat, the Giants watched helplessly as Baez lofted a center-cut fastball into the chilly air. The Cubs had been helpless against Johnny Cueto all night, notching just two hits in the first seven innings and striking out nine times. Baez was so flummoxed by Cueto’s changeup — the best it’s been all year, Buster Posey said — and wiggling delivery and pinpoint command that he came to the plate with one out the eighth and figured he would try to bunt his way on. He changed his mind when he saw third baseman Conor Gillaspie playing in.
“I knew Cueto was pitching me inside all night,” Baez said. “I was just waiting for him to make a mistake and he finally did.”
Cueto threw 118 pitches, one short of a season-high. He got burned by just one.
“What a job he did for us,” Bochy said. “He did all he could to help win this ballgame.”
Cueto was every bit as good as Madison Bumgarner two days prior, but on this night there would be no clutch homer. Early on, it was an opposite approach. The Giants made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes as Jon Lester roared through eight innings, throwing just 86 pitches.
Gorkys Hernandez, playing for Denard Span, led off the first with a bunt single, but he was thrown out trying to steal second. Gillaspie dropped in a leadoff single two innings later, but he got picked off on a creative play by the Cubs.
Anthony Rizzo walked toward the dugout to collect a new glove, and then he lined up alongside Lester, seemingly waiting for a bunt from Cueto. Baez took over at first, holding Gillaspie close. There would be no bunt. The Cubs pitched out and David Ross threw behind the runner, cutting Gillaspie down. The Giants did not have a play on. Gillaspie simply got caught too far up the line.
“It’s hard,” Gillaspie said. “Obviously, I wasn’t expecting that, but we were trying to create a throw over and trying to get something stirred up to create an opportunity for ourselves. It’s smart. It was a good play. Got me.”
The Giants wasted a leadoff hit in each of the first three innings. In the fourth, they did nothing with a one-out single from Posey. Angel Pagan hit a flare to left with two outs and it trickled past Ben Zobrist, but Posey slowed as he approached second base and he was held at third.
“I hesitated, I pulled up a little bit, thinking the ball was going to be trapped or kept in front of him,” Posey said. “In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have slowed up like I did.”
Lester, who finished second to teammate Kyle Hendricks in ERA, cruised after that threat, retiring 13 straight to finish his night. Cueto was there with him every step of the way, with a little help from two players who were surprise additions to the lineup.
Hernandez got the nod over Span because he’s right-handed, but he showed off his best trait, his strong glove, with a sliding catch at the track that robbed Ross of a third-inning double. Kelby Tomlinson also bats right-handed, so he took Joe Panik’s spot and made two diving catches at second, one of which saved a run.
Cueto did the rest, staring down the best team in baseball as the tension spiked. In the eighth, he finally blinked. Posey set up low and away to Baez, who has one of the quickest bats in the game. The 93 mph fastball drifted back over the heart of the plate and Baez unloaded. He flipped his bat and strolled out of the box, thinking he had put one onto Waveland Avenue. Then the wind took over, and Pagan went back to the wall with the stride of a man who thought he was about to open his glove. As his back hit the ivy, the ball landed in the basket.
“I think it hit the basket by maybe one inch,” Pagan said. “The reality is, that basket has been there for so many years. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
Pagan came up with the Cubs in 2006. He has seven career homers at Wrigley, and he said at least one landed in a similar spot. “That basket has saved a lot of people,” Pagan said, smiling and shaking his head.
It couldn’t save Cueto, and it brought Aroldis Chapman into the game. The closer is the hardest-throwing man in MLB history, but he is also prone to wildness, and he went 3-2 on Hernandez before firing a 100 mph fastball up in the zone. Hernandez halted his swing and started walking toward first. Home plate umpire Todd Tichenor gestured down the line, and first base ump Alan Porter swung a fist. As the visiting dugout raged, Hernandez put his hand on his helmet, trying to digest the call.
“I wasn’t even close,” to a swing, he said later. “I don’t know what he thought. I don’t have excuses, but it was ball four, not even close. I don’t understand.”
It was another inch that went the other way. “From our view, it didn’t look like he went,” Bochy said. Posey, careful with his words, called it “a tough one, I’ll just say that. It seemed like it was really close.”
The call became harder to swallow two batters later, when Posey got a first-pitch slider and launched his sixth career hit off Chapman. Instead of racing home, Hernandez watched from the dugout as Posey hustled into second base. When Hunter Pence grounded out, the night was over.
There was no panic when the Giants reached the clubhouse. They have been here before, and been behind in a division series before. But the task ahead of them, facing Hendricks, the ERA leader, is another imposing one.
The Giants will counter with Jeff Samardzija, their hottest pitcher entering October. They expect another close game Saturday. They expect to be on the other end.
“There’s no other way,” Pagan said.