David Ross doesn’t play all that often these days, what with Miguel Montero and Willson Contreras penciled in above him on the Cubs’ catching depth chart, but when he does—almost always every fifth day, when Jon Lester is pitching—he takes to the task with enormous seriousness of purpose. In his final big-league season, it’s his only chance to contribute to what has been a charmed season. As the league became increasingly aware that Lester—for whatever reason—doesn’t like to throw over to first, and so became increasingly enamored of taking the big lead and getting the early jump when Lester was pitching, Ross decided to take what had been a weakness and turn it into a strength.
That strength was on full display Friday night in Chicago, as Ross’ strong right arm helped set the defensive tone for the Cubs early, and kept them in the game against a red-hot Johnny Cueto. The first of two key moments came in the game’s first inning. Seconds after Gorkys Hernandez led off the game with a bunt single down the right-field line, Ross gunned him down going from first to second, with a quick pop and another nice tag by Javier Baez at the keystone (he’s making a habit of that). But it was the second moment that stood out.
Conor Gillaspie—San Francisco’s Wild Card hero—led off the third inning with a clean single to right, which prompted Anthony Rizzo (usually the Cubs’ first baseman) to switch out a 13-inch first-baseman’s glove for a smaller infield version–which he's done before–and head out to short right to switch places with Baez, who manned first. On the very next pitch, it became clear why. Lester threw a fastball intentionally outside to Cueto, which allowed Ross to explode forward out of his crouch to catch it, fire to Baez, and record the out at the expense of a startled Gillaspie. It was planned, it was right there for everyone to see, and it was brilliant.
Perhaps under-appreciated in a season that’s been oversaturated with Cubs coverage is just how good Chicago has been at executing the little plays. Don’t kid yourself: It’s something they practice, and each play is optimized for the players on the roster, and the roster in turn is optimized to allow for as many of these little plays as possible. It matters, on the margins. It mattered in Game 1.
Far more important to the outcome of the game, though, was the pitching. There’s no word for it other than brilliant, really. Cueto, who’s as fun to watch as anyone in the game when he’s on, had the Cubs’ hitters off balance pretty much all night, mixing his four-seam, his cutter, and—especially—his changeup incredibly effectively, and taking full advantage of a liberal strike zone on the outside edge against lefties. That’s not a knock against his pitching: the zone was consistent, and he kept hitting it.
There may be better pitchers out there (in fact, there definitely are), but Cueto is something special: a herky-jerky, loud-action delivery with a weird-ass follow-through that he just finds a way to repeat every time. He came out on the losing end of this one, sure, but that’s not really the point. He was sensational, and if this series goes five games, he might get the chance to do it again.
Lester was a Baez better. He’s been on a roll for a few months now: With the exception of his very last start—a five-inning, five-run clunker against Cincinnati—he hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a start since July 24. Game 1 was vintage Lester: eight shutout innings on the back of a stunningly effective cutter, smart pitch sequencing by Ross—there’s that guy again!—and some pretty plays by the Cubs’ defense.
There was also—and I know I’m not meant to lean too heavily on this, at Baseball Prospectus—just a tremendous sense of calm around Lester’s start tonight. He got into trouble early quite a bit, with leadoff singles in three of the first four innings, but never seemed too troubled by it. When left fielder Ben Zobrist inexplicably let a ball get past him in the fourth, putting runners at second and third with two outs, he dialed in and got Brandon Crawford on a ground out to short. And, finally, when Joe Maddon approached him in the dugout after the visiting half of the eighth and told him his night was over, he didn’t fight it (much). He knew it was time, and knew he’d given it all he had. That’s peace.
Aroldis Chapman, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition for games exactly like this, came in for the ninth, and despite some weird calls by the home-plate umpire (I’m not really convinced Hernandez did strike out), a pinch-hitting appearance by Eduardo Nunez, and a last-chance double by the Giants’ heart, Buster Posey, he closed the game out and put the Cubs up 1-0 in this best-of-five series.
Given the way the starters match up the rest of the way—Kyle Hendricks/Jeff Samardzija in Game 2, Jake Arrieta/Madison Bumgarner in Game 3—this was a huge win for Chicago and a devastating loss for San Francisco, which now has to try to rustle up three wins on the back of no more than two Bumgarner starts. They could very well do it—way, way stranger things have happened—but it’ll be difficult. The Cubs’ men up the middle—Lester, Ross, and Baez—made the difference in Game 1.