SAN FRANCISCO – The Cubs couldn’t solve Madison Bumgarner and the even-year equation that won World Series titles for the San Francisco Giants in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Another sellout crowd at AT&T Park and a national TV audience saw the blueprint for October on Sunday night, Bumgarner walking off the mound to a standing ovation with two outs in the eighth inning of a 1-0 victory over a Cubs team that so far has only won the offseason.
The first-place Giants (27-19) won this three-game series with lights-out pitching, strong defense all over the field and enough big hits – and without starting Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija, the frontline pitchers imported at a cost of $220 million for the next championship window.
“I know they feel they can beat us – and we feel like we can beat them,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We match up well. We can play against these guys. It’s always going to be a closely contested game. No side has a clear-cut advantage.”
The Cubs believe they are better built to handle power pitching in the playoffs and manufacture offense in October after a boom-or-bust lineup got swept by the New York Mets in last year’s National League Championship Series.
The Cubs made Bumgarner work, forcing him to throw 28 pitches in the first inning and loading the bases with two outs. But with that deceptive windup, funky angle and left-handed crossfire motion, Bumgarner won an eight-pitch at-bat against Addison Russell, striking him out looking at a 92-mph knee-high fastball.
“Throughout the season, you’re going to see (adversity),” said Russell, who went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. “Whenever you’re riding high, just ride that wave out. This is something that we’re going to be faced with the whole season.
“The best thing we can do is just keep our confidence high and go get them next time.”
Bumgarner (6-2, 2.17 ERA) allowed only three singles across 7.2 innings, finishing with six strikeouts, two walks and an RBI double off Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 3.30 ERA) in the fifth, which means the Cubs have now lost three of their last four series.
At 29-13, is this the best team in baseball?
“If you went based off record right now, everybody would say that, I understand that,” Maddon said. “We have to be able to sustain that over the course. This is a snapshot. This is May 20-whatever. I want to be the best team in baseball after the last game’s been played.
“So for right now, mission accomplished getting off to a good start. (But) it doesn’t really matter if you are right now or not. It’s what you are at the end of the year that matters the most.”
The Giants are an edgy, experienced, confident team that won’t concede anything. The Cubs couldn’t generate any power against Bumgarner, with Dexter Fowler driving a ball that came back down to earth at the left-field warning track in the fifth inning.
Javier Baez tried to get creative leading off the eighth inning, bunting a ball toward first and getting called out for running outside the base path. Maddon erupted, going nose-to-nose with first-base umpire Dana DeMuth, but it didn’t change the call.
And when Ben Zobrist blasted a ball to deep center field off Giants closer Santiago Casilla to begin the ninth inning, Denard Span made a falling-backwards catch in front of the wall.
But the Cubs aren’t going to hit the panic button with a sub-.700 winning percentage (.690), passing the season’s quarter pole in San Francisco and heading into Busch Stadium on Monday night with a six-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and a seven-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the division.
“Now it’s up to us to sustain it,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s in there taking anything for granted. We come to play every night.”