The first inning of Thursday’s game was a godawful mess.
Mike Montgomery gave up a double to the first hitter he faced and after two groundouts, Hunter Pence slammed a baseball high into the left-center field bleachers that might have hit the video board if the wind hadn’t been blowing in at 15 miles per hour.
The Cubs, though, came back with three runs of their own off our old buddy Jeff Samardzija, who threw 47 (!) pitches in the bottom of the first. Shark allowed two walks — including an intentional pass to David Ross, and when’s the last time you saw someone walked on purpose in the first inning? — and four hits. RBI hits by Kris Bryant, (who’s now hit in 14 straight games tying his career high), Jason Heyward (nice work hitting to the opposite field!) and Chris Coghlan (who now has a .728 OPS in 72 PA as a Cub, not too far off what he did here last year) gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead.
Montgomery, though, couldn’t hold the lead. He walked three and hit a batter and by the time he left after the fourth, the Giants had taken a 4-3 lead, thanks to a throwing error by Ben Zobrist (tough error) on a possible double-play ball. Most probably, Addison Russell should have taken that throw, as he was in position; Zobrist had to make an awkward across-his-body relay. The Cubs eventually got out of that inning with an actual double play.
That’s when guys who you might never expected to contribute to a game against a contending opponent did so. Cubs relievers retired all 15 hitters they faced from the fifth through the ninth, and including the final five hitters of Montgomery’s appearance, the last 20 Giants went down in order. Rob Zastryzny, Joe Smith (just back off the DL) and Carl Edwards Jr. threw five perfect innings, with five total strikeouts, and Russell’s two-run single in the seventh (moving him up to 88 RBI on the year) gave the Cubs a 5-4 win, their fourth victory in a row.
After the first inning -- which took about 45 minutes to complete — the pace of the game picked up. The Cubs had just three baserunners from the second through the fifth, and just one (Ross, who walked and went to third on a Dexter Fowler single in the fourth) got past first base.
In the seventh, we got classic Bruce Bochy. The Giants manager is known for making multiple pitching changes in an inning if he thinks that will help him win, and four different Giants threw in the seventh. Hunter Strickland gave up a leadoff single to Fowler (the ball went off of Strickland and Dex beat it out) and walked Bryant. Then it was Will Smith’s turn. He also issued a walk, to Zobrist, in between a strikeout and a popup, and while Zobrist was batting, Fowler stole third. So the bases were loaded with two out, and Cory Gearrin was summoned to face Russell.
Addy came up big-time:
The two-run single, dumped into short left field, scored a pair and gave the Cubs the lead.
Joe Smith — because you can’t have enough Smiths pitching, I suppose -- looked completely different from the guy who gave up multiple home runs after his acquisition from the Angels. He had a good sinker working and struck out a pair, and got weak contact for the other outs.
Then it was what John Lackey would likely have called “a big-boy inning,” the ninth in a one-run game, with three of the Giants’ best hitters (Pence, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik) due up. With Aroldis Chapman not available (and word is, he might not be available Friday either), it was time for Edwards to show he could close out a game.
Working from a windup, unusual for a reliever, Edwards struck out Pence on a 97 mile-per-hour fastball and got Crawford and Panik to hit routine ground balls for his first major-league save. It’s been mentioned that Edwards could be a potential closer-in-training and this game certainly showed he has what’s needed for that role — the right attitude and approach, and a fastball consistently over 95.
The win evened up the season series between the Cubs and Giants, and likely meant more to the latter than to the Cubs, who are still cruising at high altitude over the rest of the N.L. Central. The Giants are a very good team led by a manager who’s every bit Joe Maddon’s equal, and winning games like this, with a crowd revved up to playoff atmosphere, gives the Cubs a taste of what things might be like in October, especially with the weather turning to fall-like conditions just as the calendar flipped to September. The win also evened up the Cubs’ record in one-run games at 19-19.
With the Cardinals off Thursday, the Cubs’ lead increased to 15½ games in the Central and their magic number for division clinching was reduced to 15. For clinching the best record in the National League (over the Nationals), the magic number is now 22. The win also produced the first mathematical elimination of any team from any race this year, as the Reds (who were realistically eliminated long ago) were mathematically eliminated from the N.L. Central race.
The only worrisome thing about this game was Montgomery’s outing, which wasn’t good. If the Cubs are indeed going to try this six-man rotation thing once Lackey comes back, Montgomery is going to have to do better than this.
There were many orange-clad Giants fans in the crowd Thursday night; you could likely hear them cheering loudly for Pence’s home run. But they were mostly silent the rest of the evening. Large groups of purple-wearing LSU fans were also spotted at Wrigley Thursday night, apparently wanting to take in a Cubs game before they head to Green Bay for their team’s Saturday contest against the University of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the Cubs keep cruising. Friday afternoon, Jon Lester will take the mound for the Cubs and it’ll be rookie Albert Suarez for the Giants. The game preview posts at 11:30 a.m. CT.