By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — An eerie silence set through Wrigley Field for most of Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series on Friday night. Fans held their breath with every pitch, waiting for that defining moment.
Playoff baseball brings many emotions, with only one more powerful than nerves — pure, uninhibited joy. Finally, Wrigley Field was sent into a frenzy with Javier Baez’s eighth-inning solo home run. The ballpark rose and watched as the ball seemed poised to carry onto Waveland Avenue. The wind allowed it to barely grace the basket in left field.
Strangers hugged strangers, beer flung through the air and that powerful emotion set through the oh so Friendly Confines. It was matched once more when Aroldis Chapman induced the final out of a 1-0 Cubs win. Baez scooped the grounder headed his way and heaved it to Anthony Rizzo at first, pumping his first immediately after. The Cubs drew first blood in the series.
A terrific stalemate of pitching and defense was waiting for a hero, and Baez delivered. What a game it was.
“It was a classic kind of an old-school baseball game,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Jon Lester and Johnny Cueto were extraordinary in Game 1. Their defenses were just as good.
Cubs catcher David Ross gunned down Giants lead-off man Gorkys Hernandez after a bunt single started the game. Wrigley offered its first raucous cheer of the game.
Giants second baseman Kelby Tomlinson came through with a terrific diving stop to steal a hit away from Ben Zobrist in the fourth inning, and a fan in section 503 slammed down his Cubs hat and unleashed a four-letter word. Most of the ballpark could only groan and sit down.
To no surprise, the game’s two best defensive teams kept their teams even.
“It’s kind of like football — defense wins championships,” Lester said.
Someone had to deliver.
Oddly enough, Baez was preparing to bunt as he stepped to the plate. He wanted to catch Cueto off-guard and win with small ball. But Baez had a change of heart and elected to swing away.
Baez flipped his bat after a vicious swing, later apologizing for his action. He thought the ball was preparing to fly out of the ballpark. But that ball hung in the air for ages, finally finding the basket.
“I hit it pretty good,” Baez said. “I thought it was going further than that.”
When the Cubs opted to dismiss Jim Hendry from his office as the general manager back in 2011, they allowed him to work one more draft, even knowing he would be fired. In the first round, Hendry selected Baez, whose maturation has transformed his game.
It’s fitting that Baez was thinking bunt when he took to the plate. He can do it all — home runs, small ball, diving plays, stellar throws and the best tags in recent memory. Gone is the one-dimensional home-run hitter, but Baez can still crush a baseball.
“I got a little power,” Baez said.
Game 1 went just as Maddon drew it up. Lester did what he was paid $155 million to do, throwing a gem in a playoff game. The defense was outstanding, which always pleases Maddon. Chapman was set to come into the ninth inning, regardless of the circumstances.
“It’s hard to argue when you got a guy throwing 104 down in the bullpen,” Lester said.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy saw Game 1 play out just as he envisioned, too. Cueto kept the Cubs’ bats quiet, and the Giants’ defense was spectacular. Two days after his team won the NL wild-card game by snapping a scoreless tie with a Conor Gillaspie home run, Bochy’s Giants played a brilliant game but came one swing short.
The Cubs and Giants put forth a remarkable effort to keep their contest scoreless. This series may be destined for five games.
“I expect these games to be like this,” Bochy said.
Playoff baseball fosters many emotions. There’s nothing like that feeling of victory. All the Cubs needed was a hero, and Baez’s sweet swing was enough.
Those inside the ballpark won’t ever forget that healthy cut, the excruciating wait for the baseball to land and the moment it finally fell into the basket. Finally, the silence was gone and the game would be won.
But this series is just beginning. There are more moments ahead.
“It’s going to be a grind,” Lester said. “We’ll show up tomorrow and try to do it again.”