SAN FRANCISCO – Joe Maddon’s zany stunts, Jake Arrieta’s individual brilliance and all these star hitters generate most of the headlines about the team with the best record in baseball.
But the game still revolves around pitching, even if it sometimes feels like the Cubs rotation only gets noticed when it doesn’t do its job, or in the context of which big-name starter Theo Epstein’s front office should add by the trade deadline.
Case in point: Saturday’s 5-3 loss at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants knocked out Jon Lester in the third inning of what’s been billed as a potential playoff preview.
You can find all sorts of distracting stats and invented streaks, but this one actually mattered: Until this clunker, the Cubs had 48 straight regular-season games where their starter had gone at least five innings, the franchise’s longest stretch since 1910.
“Everybody’s talking about run differential and all this other stuff – fine,” Maddon said. “A lot of that’s based on the fact that our pitchers are so good.”
The Giants can compete with anyone. Just look at the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series flags flying above the center-field video board at their beautiful waterfront stadium that draws the younger, engaged, energetic crowds Major League Baseball is desperate to connect with now.
This is a great city and a relaxed West Coast media market that doesn’t smother players. The Giants have a potential Hall of Fame manager (Bruce Bochy), an MVP catcher (Buster Posey) and an overall baseball-operations/business-side efficiency/harmony that’s become the industry’s gold standard.
All that synergy and postcard-perfect scenery – and more guaranteed money – still couldn’t convince Lester to change his mind before agreeing to the six-year, $155 million megadeal that shook the 2014 winter meetings.
The 431st straight regular-season sellout crowd here watched Giants pitcher Matt Cain snap an 0-for-46 streak in the second inning, blasting a two-out, two-run double off Lester and over the head of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Posey later drilled a two-run homer into the left-field seats off Lester in the third inning.
“I can’t walk the pitcher,” Lester said. “I got to take my chances with a heater and pulled it middle and he put a good swing on it. I can live with the Poseys of the world hitting homers. But to put myself in a 3-2 count with a pitcher and allowing him to do damage – that’s obviously not good.
“(There’s) a lot of things in the game that I wish I could go back (to) and rethink through or throw another pitch. But it is what it is.”
It doesn’t change the outlook for a 29-12 team that’s lost four of its last six games, and six of its last 10. Or a pitching staff that began the day with three top-seven pitchers among the National League ERA leaders: Arrieta (1.29); Lester (1.88); and Jason Hammel (2.31).
“Our rotation’s been pretty solid,” said Lester, who’s now 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA after giving up five runs in 2.2 innings against the first-place Giants. “We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do – keep our team in the ballgame and put up innings – with the exception of today.
“We all knew coming in that our rotation was going to be pretty strong. And we have to be strong if we want to go where we want to go.”
Or as All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said: “If anyone thought that we were going to win 140 games, I want to know what they’re taking.”
Up next is ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” and Madison Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP who thought Fowler and Jason Heyward had been tipping pitches during a Cactus League game and almost sparked a bench-clearing incident two months ago in Arizona.
If it could get that heated in spring training, imagine October with Arrieta vs. Bumgarner and Lester vs. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange making a playoff start at Wrigley Field.
“We’ll see,” Lester said. “We got a long season. There’s a lot of what-ifs and all this stuff that can happen along the way. We got to stay healthy and worry about the Cubs. If we’re able to get to that position, we’ll worry about the opponent when we get there. But they definitely have a good team. They’re a scrappy team. They put up good, quality at-bats. They make you work.”