ST. LOUIS -- You didn't think this was going to be easy, did you?
In a magnificent pitchers' duel eventually shattered by a couple of eighth-inning Cardinals home runs, the Cardinals shut out the Cubs 4-0, taking a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five Division Series matchup.
If you're going to go all doom-and-gloom, you might as well do it somewhere else. Even with Jon Lester on the mound, this one was going to be tough. The Cubs hadn't been able to handle John Lackey well all year, and he showed that form again Friday evening. The Cubs had only one baserunner through the first five innings, a one-out walk drawn by Kyle Schwarber (whose first two postseason games have been wonderful) in the fourth. Kris Bryant immediately -- and I mean immediately, it happened on the first pitch -- hit into a double play to end the inning. The Cubs were trying to be aggressive with Lackey, who throws a lot of first-pitch strikes. This isn't a bad strategy; it just didn't work in this one.
At that point the score was just 1-0. Jon Lester gave up a one-out double to Stephen Piscotty in the first inning that bounced into the right-field seats after hitting about 10 feet fair. Matt Holliday lined a single up the middle to give the Cardinals the lead.
1-0 in the first inning... not that big a deal, right? Lester not only settled down, but retired 21 of the next 23 hitters he faced, striking out nine. The only baserunners in that span: Kolten Wong, who hit a two-out, pop-fly double down the left-field line in the second inning, and Jason Heyward, who singled leading off the fourth and advanced to second on a wild pitch. The only other Cardinal who came close to reaching base in that time was Holliday. He bounced a ball that Starlin Castro briefly bobbled. Holliday was called out on the field, and on review, the first ever for the Cubs in the postseason, it was ruled "call stands." Here, decide for yourself:
As is customary, the play was shown on the Busch Stadium video board. Red-clad fans all around me were signaling "safe," and all I could do was laugh. The play was close, but I thought you could see the ball go to the back of Anthony Rizzo's mitt just before Holliday's foot touched first base.
The game moved on. The Cubs finally got a hit off Lackey, a leadoff single by Addison Russell in the sixth. He stole second and with two out and a 2-2 count, Cubs fans in the crowd jumped to their feet as Dexter Fowler hit this ball:
About three feet. Three feet are what stood between Fowler's hit and a 2-1 Cubs lead. But Randal Grichuk caught the ball on the warning track, right in front of the wall, ending the inning.
It's still 1-0. I mean, I'm starting to see Cubs fans on Twitter call Lester "a bust," and I'm thinking "What game are they watching?"
The Cubs came to bat in the seventh and I saw the Cardinals in an extreme defensive shift on Kyle Schwarber and I thought, "If ever there's a good time to bunt into the shift, it's now." Schwarber did it and beat Jhonny Peralta's throw. Schwarber, as I noted, has risen to the occasion in his first big-league postseason and is making big-time plays (he also made a nice running catch in right field earlier in the game). Tying run on base! Unfortunately, Lackey struck out Bryant and got Rizzo to hit into a double play.
Mike Matheny finally pulled Lackey with one out in the eighth, bringing in lefty Kevin Siegrist to face Chris Coghlan. Now, you might be wondering why Joe Maddon didn't pinch-hit Chris Denorfia or Jorge Soler in that situation. Here's why:
RHB vs. Siegrist in 2015: .164/.236/.275 LHB vs. Siegrist in 2015: .278/.406/.405
Which makes you wonder why Matheny made that move. It seemed better, statistically, for the lefthanded-hitting Coghlan, but Siegrist struck him out.
Or did he?
I am not going to use umpiring as an excuse for the Cubs losing this game, but Phil Cuzzi was absolutely horrendous behind the plate Friday night, and I was concerned about this when I saw the umpiring rotation, as Cuzzi has a reputation as a poor ball-and-strike umpire. Six umpires on this crew, for a five-game series, and we get this guy behind the plate for Game 1? His zone was all over the place all night; calling it inconsistent would be kind. Coghlan was not happy with the calls, as I'm sure you saw. Siegrist then struck out Russell to end the inning.
Lester retired Wong to lead off the eighth and ran the count to 3-1 on pinch-hitter Tommy Pham, who then launched Lester's 110th pitch of the night deep into the left-field seats for a 2-0 lead.
Truth be told, Maddon probably should have lifted Lester right then. 110 pitches was enough, I thought, and Pedro Strop and Travis Wood were ready in the bullpen. The obvious choice was to bring Wood in to face the lefthanded Matt Carpenter. But Joe made no move. Lester walked Carpenter, and only then did Maddon bring in Strop, who had struggled all year against the Cardinals. You could have almost predicted what would happen next, as Strop tried to sneak a slider past Piscotty, who hit a home run even deeper into the seats than Pham's.
At 4-0 and with Trevor Rosenthal entering the game, there seemed to be little hope for Cubs fans. Rosenthal, though, had allowed 12 hits, six earned runs and two home runs in 8⅓ September innings. Would that carry over into October?
After Rosenthal struck out Denorfia, batting for David Ross, he issued a one-out walk to Soler, pinch-hitting for Strop. (Again, Joe Maddon was trying to play Rosenthal's reverse splits: righthanded batters hit .270/.311/.375 against the Cardinals closer this year, lefthanders just .194/.304/.222). Rosenthal got a "third strike" past Fowler. Again, Cuzzi's strike zone was awful:
Saturday night, Bill Welke, a more-respected ball-and-strike umpire, will be behind the plate. We won't see Cuzzi there the rest of the postseason, at least.
Schwarber followed this with his second hit of the game, a line-drive single down the left-field line. If only Bryant could get on base, the tying run would come to the plate. It was a longshot... and it didn't happen. Bryant was also called out on strikes -- the sixth Cub who watched strike three, or maybe I should say "strike three" on the night -- and the game was over.
It's one game. Sure, you can quote statistics all the live-long day about how teams that lose Game 1 of the Division Series do, but it's also true that visiting teams generally feel that if they can take one of the first two games on the road, and the Cubs still have a chance to do that, they're in pretty good shape.
Cubs fans didn't have much to cheer about so it was somewhat difficult to guesstimate how many were in the crowd of 47,830, but based on just watching people walk around outside the park, and seeing little pockets of blue in the stands, I'd say it was somewhere in the area of 20 percent, maybe a little bit more. If the Cubs can actually score some runs and give us reason to cheer Saturday night, you'll hear us loud and clear.
Cardinals fans were mostly welcoming, but I heard the same lame joke from one of them (a man who was otherwise quite friendly) that I heard last month. To wit:
Cardinals fan: Want to see a Cubs World Series shirt?
(He then shows me a blank white T-shirt.)
They think, for some reason, that this is uproariously hilarious. I just rolled my eyes.
There was another man who came up behind me and started to pat me on the back and do a little bit of taunting after Pham's home run. It was just on the borderline of good-natured and mean-spirited and I had made up my mind to talk to a stadium employee if it happened again, when one of those stadium folks tapped me on the shoulder and asked if the man had been bothering me. I said no, but I didn't want it to happen again and I'd let her know. Two minutes later I saw her talking to the man anyway. Nice to see them being proactive about avoiding trouble.
Back to this great pitchers' duel -- and it was one of the better ones you'll ever see in a playoff game -- I particularly enjoyed this tweet:
Man, this Lackey/Lester matchup is fantastic!! Too bad the Red Sox can't get pitchers like this.— High Heat Stats MLB (@HighHeatStats) October 10, 2015
And it was fantastic, just the reverse of what we saw Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. Our guy was good. Their guy was better.
Now it's up to Kyle Hendricks, who was lights-out in his last two regular-season starts, to give the Cubs the chance to even up the series. Jaime Garcia goes for the Cardinals. It's got a listed starting time of 4:37 p.m. CT, and one note on that: with local sunset around 6:30 p.m., that could cause some early-game shadows as Saturday's weather forecast calls for sunny skies and a high temperature around 70. The game preview will post at 2:30 p.m. CT.