Run for the Ring: NLDS Game 1
That was the difference in the first playoff game from that epic fall of 2016 – a 107.4 mph shot off the bat of Javy Báez that gave the Cubs a tense 1-0 victory.
It was a brisk 58-degree night at Wrigley Field filled with the expectations and pressure of the beginning of a postseason run that was supposed to end with a parade down Michigan Ave. We know now that’s exactly how the next month played out, but on the night of Oct. 7, 2016, no such assurances were doled out to the Cubs or their fans.
This was a 103-win team who had cruised to the National League Central title and boasted a +252 run differential, 101 more than the next closest team in the league (Washington Nationals: +151).
This was supposed to be the team that ended the 108-year championship drought on the North Side of Chicago, the players that were supposed to etch their name in baseball lore forever as the group that accomplished the greatest feat in American Sports history.
But first, they had to get through Johnny Cueto and the 87-win Giants who advanced to the NLDS on the backs of Madison Bumgarner (complete game shutout) and Conor Gillaspie (3-run homer) in a 3-0 win over the Mets in the Wild-Card game.
Here’s how the two teams lined up that night the Friendly Confines:
- Dexter Fowler – CF
- Kris Bryant – 3B
- Anthony Rizzo – 1B
- Ben Zobrist – LF
- Addison Russell – SS
- Jason Heyward – RF
- Javy Báez – 2B
- David Ross – C
- Jon Lester – P
- Gorkys Hernández – CF
- Brandon Belt – 1B
- Buster Posey – C
- Hunter Pence – RF
- Ángel Pagán – LF
- Brandon Crawford – SS
- Kelby Tomlinson – 2B
- Conor Gillaspie – 3B
- Johnny Cueto
Cueto had a fantastic season (6th in NL Cy Young voting with an 18-5 record and 2.79 ERA) and he pitched like it on this night, keeping the Cubs off balance with a variety of different wind-ups and deliveries. He struck out 10, did not walk a batter and allowed only 3 hits.
Lester was just a little better, scattering 5 hits in 8 shutout innings and looking every bit the big game pitcher the Cubs signed him to be.
This was only Game 1 of the series, so a loss would not have been a huge blow to the Cubs. But they also hadn’t played in four days and hadn’t taken part in a competitive game for almost a month. Meanwhile, the Giants were riding high off their Wild-Card win a couple days prior and they were also in the midst of their “even-year magic” after having won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Plus, this game was going on at Wrigley Field, packed with Cubs fans who had seen more than their fair share of disappointment over their respective lifetimes.
It was with this background that the tension of that evening built with each batter.
Cueto retired the first 10 Cubs in order before Bryant’s 1-out double in the 4th inning. But Rizzo and Zobrist followed with groundouts to the right side and the brief threat was snuffed out.
Lester matched Cueto out-for-out and put up a goose egg in the top half of the 8th inning. In the bottom half, Heyward led off with a popout.
Up stepped Báez, who ran the count full before hammering Cueto’s sixth offering high into the night sky and into the teeth of a 10-mph wind … right into the left-field bleachers, just narrowly above the basket.
The announced crowd of 42,148 was delirious and demanded a curtain call from the infielder who had just started going by his “El Mago” nickname.
It was only 1 run, but it was all the Cubs needed as Aroldis Chapman came in to relieve Lester and shut the door in the 9th inning for his first career postseason save.
- This was the Cubs’ first 1-0 victory in a postseason game since 1906 when they beat the White Sox by the same score in Game 4 of the 1906 World Series.