CHICAGO — It was soooo easy for those San Francisco Giants to look at the classic October baseball game that unfolded Friday evening at turbo-charged Wrigley Field and chalk it up to the minuscule difference between winning and losing this time of year.
When you lose a 1-0 game to the mighty Chicago Cubs on a brisk October night, it’s soooo easy to think it all came down to one pitch. To one swing. To one eighth-inning home run that floated through the Chicago sky and came down in a contraption that doesn’t exist in any other ballpark in America.
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And if that’s how the Giants want to look at it — by which we mean heck yeah, they did — it would be hard to blame them. But here’s another question they might want to ask themselves: What makes them think they’re going to be able to score enough to beat the team with the best pitching staff in baseball?
OK, we’ve noticed it’s an even year. And yessir, we’ve noticed that magical stuff happens to the Giants in even-year Octobers. But you want to know what else we’ve noticed?
That when they face the Cubs, every night looks a lot like this night.
Since the beginning of September, the Giants now have played the Cubs five times. Want to take a look at how those Giants hitters have fared in those five games? Sure you do. But you might need to sit down first and maybe pour yourself a beverage, because this won’t be easy on the eyes.
In those five games, the Giants have gotten a total of 20 hits. In 163 at-bats. And if you don’t have a calculator handy, that computes to a terrifying batting average of — ready? — .123. It also includes nearly twice as many strikeouts (39) as hits (20).
You can now repeat after us: Yikes!
And of the 10 runs the Giants have scored in those five games, four of them came off Mike Montgomery during a Sept. 1 spot start. In the other four games, they went 16 for 98 (.163) against Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Friday night’s Cubs ace du jour, Jon Lester — scoring a total of four earned runs in 28 innings.
So is that an indicator of what’s to come in this attractive little Division Series between the three-time champs and the 103-win juggernaut on a mission to end their town’s fun-filled 108 years of suffering? If it is, then Jeff Samardzija, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Moore had better be ready to drop a whole lot of zeroes on the scoreboard over the next three games.
Asked Friday night if he enjoys hitting at Wrigley, Buster Posey couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure,” he said. “When I get hits.”
Well, he did get two of them on this night. That’s the good news. The bad news is, his two forays into scoring position (which would be more than all of his teammates combined) converted into zero runs — since the lineup around him combined to go 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position against Lester and his favorite 102 mph closer, Aroldis Chapman.
“When you’re facing Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman, you’ve got your hands full,” Posey said, in the midst of an almost dead-silent clubhouse. “Hey, we’d love to score six off Lester. But the odds of that aren’t very good.”
Yeah, you don’t need to check the tote board in Vegas to know he’s got an excellent feel for those odds. But how much better do the odds get Saturday in Game 2, when the Giants have to face Kyle Hendricks, a fellow who just led the league in ERA and went 9-2, 1.32, at Wrigley this season?
And do those odds improve a whole lot in Game 3, when the Giants have to line up against the incumbent Cy Young, Arrieta, a gentleman who has allowed a grand total of seven earned runs against them in five starts as a Cub?
Then next up, after him, is Lackey. His career ERA against the Giants in the regular season: 2.37. And are we allowed to mention a slightly painful Game 7 win over them in a 2002 World Series that didn’t turn out so hot? Oops. We just did. Sorry!
So those numbers alone tell you this is one dazzling rotation the Cubs are about to run out there. But just to make sure, we asked Posey if these guys were as good as the numbers make them look? And let’s just say he didn’t deny it.
“Yeah, they’ve got good stuff,” Posey said. “And they’re all a little bit different. Lester has really good stuff, and he commands the ball well. And obviously, the guy we’ve got tomorrow (Hendricks) commands the ball as well as anybody in the game. Arrieta is a ‘stuff guy,’ for sure. His ball is moving all over the place. And Lackey is going to compete his tail off. But I mean, that’s what you expect this time of year.”
Since he’s speaking as a man who is about as familiar with “this time of year” as any human on the planet — from Derek Jeter to David Ortiz to Vin Scully — you can feel free to assume he’s as confident as ever that he plays on a team that will figure out how to make this work somehow or other.
“Am I confident of that? Sure,” he said. “You’ve got to scratch. But it’s what we’ve done in the past.”
The question, however, is this: Is this lineup as good as it was in the past? The 2012 and 2014 Giants both ranked in the top six in the league in runs scored. This team finished ninth. But over the second half, just two NL lineups (the Marlins and Phillies) scored fewer runs than they scored. So it’s fair to wonder if what they’ve done in the past even applies anymore.
“A lot of the second half, it felt like most of us were in a slump,” said first baseman Brandon Belt. “So that’s not as well as we can play. But I think you saw a team more like what you’re used to seeing from us in that last week of the season. I think we played more like we should play. And I think that gives us confidence going into these next games, because yeah, we’re going to face a lot of good pitching, but we know that we’re capable of winning these ball games.”
Oh, they’ve slayed plenty of great pitching staffs and plenty of great teams on the road to those three parades, of course. The 2010 Phillies, 2012 Cardinals and 2012 Nationals could tell you all about it. But in Game 1 at Wrigley Field, the Giants got a textbook lesson on what can happen to even a special team when it doesn’t score.
What happens is this: A game gets decided on a towering fly ball that the left fielder settles under, knowing he’s going to catch it — and instead it plops into a basket that hangs over the outfield wall, because, well, it’s Wrigley Field. So of course, the only overhanging basket in baseball helps determine who wins and loses a pivotal postseason game.
“Yes. Of course,” he said. “I was right under it. It looked like it was coming back. It was coming (down), but it was coming back. So I could see the ball coming back, but it was right in the back of the basket. It was right on the edge. But it was good enough.”
In other words, it caught the very edge and dropped in?
“I haven’t seen the replay, but that’s what it looked like,” Pagan said. “I saw (the) baseball. Right before I got to the wall, I saw (the) baseball right there. So you could see that if it kept (going), I could catch it.”
Pagan uttered these words with more resignation than bitterness. This was life in October. He knew it well. He has roamed outfields in the major leagues for 11 seasons now. He knows there is nothing quite like those baskets in any of the other 29 parks.
“But it’s been there for so many years, you’ve got to respect those baskets,” he said. “They’ve been there much longer than we’ve been playing baseball — or living.”
And now, he knows, it’s time for his team to find a way to overcome whatever obstacles present themselves this month — whether it’s baseball-eating baskets or bat-eating aces. Or else.
“There’s no other way,” Angel Pagan said. “Otherwise, we’re going to go home.”