Baez hits clutch homer to lift Cubs over Giants
Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez played hero on Friday night by hitting what proved to be the game-winning home run in the eighth inning. - Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Baez hits clutch homer to lift Cubs over Giants

by - Senior Writer -

CHICAGO -- In his first playoff rodeo last year, young Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez came up big, hitting a critical home run in the NLDS. Now getting his second taste of the MLB playoffs, the jack of all trades infielder reciprocated his clutch home-run hitting ways with a game-winning long ball to left field in the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 1 of the NLDS on Saturday night. Winning 1-0, thanks to Baez’s solo homer, Chicago opened its playoff action with a home victory over the San Francisco Giants, whom the Cubs defeated four out of seven times in the regular season.

In a battle between a team that has not won a World Series since 1908 (the Cubs) and a team that has won three titles since 2010 (the Giants), the Cubs showed no signs of trepidation in the series opener, especially not on the pitching front. Jon Lester, who finished the regular season sporting an impressive 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA, started on the mound for the North Siders, and his adversary, Johnny Cueto of the Giants, was definitely a worthy opponent. Cueto himself went 18-5 in the regular season, his first with the Giants, and he lived up to his ace status on the evening.

Allowing only three hits, Cueto was dominant through the first seven innings, but, in a cruel twist of fate, Baez, who hit a modest 14 round-trippers in the regular season, broke up Cueto’s scoreless start in the eighth with his homer and earned the San Francisco right-hander the loss because of it.

Lester was dominant in his own right, going eight innings on the rubber and allowing zero runs to score. The lefty only gave up five hits and faced few scoring threats, retiring 13 straight at one point. Lester gradually settled into his comfort zone on the bump, as the Giants did most of their damage with the bat early on. In the top of the fourth, Giants left fielder Angel Pagan, a former Cub, put forth his best effort of driving in a run for San Francisco, hitting a double to left-center with a runner on first and two outs that put men on second and third for the Giants. Thereafter, Lester made Pagan's extra-base hit a moot point by forcing San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford to ground out and subsequently end the inning.

The Cubs wasted an early scoring opportunity, too. During the top of the fourth, Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant, the only Cubs batter not named Javier to reach base via a hit tonight, pulled a double to left with one out. But the slugger was left stranded on base, with consecutive, succeeding grounders enabling Bryant to advance only as far as third base.

Also on the defensive side of the spectrum for the Cubs in Game 1, catcher David Ross, Lester's battery mate who is hanging up his cleats at the end of this season, was a force to be reckoned with behind home plate. Ross picked off Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie, the darling of the National League Wild Card Game for San Francisco, in the top half of the third. In addition, prior to that, Ross caught a runner stealing in the first inning, becoming the first to accomplish both defensive feats in the same playoff game for the Cubs since catcher Gabby Hartnett did it in the 1935 World Series.

Baez, who was the only Cub to accrue multiple hits in Game 1, went 2-3 at the dish and practically won the game by himself on the offensive end, as he was the only Chicago batter capable of trumping Cueto on the night. Cueto collected 10 strikeouts and had excellent command of his fastball throughout his eight innings on the hill. As a result, Chicago batters were unable to develop any type of rhythm against him, with the exception of the game’s hero. Referring, of course, to the player affectionately known as Javy, Baez earned some much-deserved praise from the experienced Ross following the game, with the 39-year-old backstop saying, "Javy has been a superstar."

The bottom of the ninth likely provided the Wrigley faithful with heart palpitations, as Giants catcher Buster Posey, who was 2-4 tonight, crushed a double toward the ivy in left with two outs. However, Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman remained calm and forced Giants right fielder Hunter Pence into a game-ending groundout in the very next at-bat, thus securing the Cubs' 1-0 shutout and giving Chapman his first career playoff save.

Tonight's outcome served as the first 1-0 postseason triumph for the Cubs since Game 4 of the 1906 World Series. Game 2 will take place tomorrow night at the Friendly Confines, with the first pitch set for 7:00 PM CST. Former Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija is slated to get the nod for the Giants, while potential Cy Young winner Kyle Hendricks will man the rubber for the Cubs.

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