Remembering October: NLDS Game 1

October 7, 2016

2016 National League Division Series Game 1: Giants vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field

It was 352 days since the Cubs’ 2015 season ended with a whimper as the Mets swept them out of the playoffs and celebrated winning the NL pennant at Wrigley Field. We’d been anxiously awaiting this day for months. After the Cubs got off to a 25-6 start and ran away with the NL Central division early, the rest of the regular season felt like a formality. History would only judge the success of the 2016 Cubs based on what they did in the postseason.

And with the dubious history of this franchise and the ultra-high expectations on this team, the pressure was intense. I was among those who groaned when the Giants beat the Mets in the NL Wild Card game, earning the right to play the Cubs in the Division Series. I knew the Cubs were far and away the best team in the league. But when anything can happen in a best-of-five series, I did not want to have to play the team that has won three championships recently and that always seems to get the job done when the lights are brightest. As Cubs fans, we were all excited for the playoffs to start, but we can’t blame any fans who were just a little nervous. The teams played an exciting four-game series in Chicago just a month earlier, in which the Cubs took three games and all four games were decided by one run. I wanted the Cubs to win, of course, but I was hoping those earlier games would be a sign of things to come in this series.

I suppose that, with as much anticipation as their was for this series, it was fitting that it was the last of the four Divisional Series to start. In fact, the two American League Series were already all but over, as Toronto and Cleveland already led Texas and Boston, respectively, two games to none when Game 1 finally started at 8:15 Central at Wrigley Field. We had to wait all day – well, all week actually – for this first game. I got home from work and watched the Dodgers-Nationals game that was on beforehand, looking at what was happening but not really paying attention. My mind was focused on the game that was to come after.

The team did a lot to build up the anticipation even more. Wayne Messmer sang the national anthem. Billy Williams threw out the first pitch. Mike Ditka declared it was time to “play ball” to pump up the crowd. Watching the opening sequence on TV, I was optimistic and scared at the same time. Then Jon Lester, coming off a Cy Young-caliber season, started to warm up on the mound. The moment of truth was here.

In addition to all the story lines, on paper it looked like it could be a classic: the Giants put Johnny Cueto up against Lester. And the game lived up to all expectations and then some. Gorkys Hernandez led off with a bunt single for the Giants, and we all know about Lester’s troubles holding baserunners. My anxiety kicked up more than a few notches. But David Ross, beginning the final act of his long, respected career as a (mostly) backup catcher, threw him out trying to steal second. That play will be overshadowed by many other great moments during this postseason, but at least for me it was a big turning point. A lot of my anxiety went away. This was going to be fun.

It ended up being a really fun game to watch. It was an intense, fast-paced game: in a postseason in which almost every game dragged on for well over three hours, this game was played in a brisk two hours and 30 minutes. Ross got the crowd even more into the game when he picked Conor Gillaspie off first base in the third inning. The crowd really seemed to be having fun. Compare that to 2008, when the crowd at Wrigley was really tense as the Cubs lost the first two games and the series to the Dodgers.

Neither team was able to do much offensively as both ace pitchers were on top of their game. The Cubs caught a huge break in the fourth when, with the Giants’ Buster Posey on first with two outs, Angel Pagan – who was a Cub seemingly about thirty years ago – hit a ball to left that fell in and bounced passed the diving Ben Zobrist. Inexplicably, Posey was unable to score on the play, and Lester got out of the inning with no further damage done. In any other year, a play like that would be that signature moment that would sink the Cubs. But this wasn’t any other year.

Both teams went pretty quietly over the next few innings. After Jason Heyward popped out to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Javier Baez came to the plate. At one point last year, it looked like the one-time can’t miss prospect Baez might be a flop at the big league level. But when shortstop Addison Russell was injured in Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS against the Cardinals, Baez was pressed into duty in the clinching Game 4 and clubbed an important three-run homer to lead the Cubs to victory. With Kyle Schwarber suffering a season-ending injury during the first week of 2016, Baez got yet another chance. He ended up playing regularly in the infield while Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist helped fill in for Schwarber in the outfield, impressing us with his defense and his bat. His walkoff homer against the Nationals on Mother’s Day was yet another signature moment on his way to reviving his career.

Here, Baez worked a full count before the crowd got up and started cheering him on, hoping to spark something big. The TV camera showed superfan Bill Murray getting on his feet, joining in trying to give Baez some encouragement. It must have worked. Baez took Cueto’s next quick pitch and put a titanic swing on it to deep left. The way Baez swung – along with his reaction – made me think at first that the ball was headed for Waveland Avenue. The camera showed the ball high in the air, making it difficult to see just how far he hit it. The wind was blowing from left to right, possibly working against any ball hit that way. It seemed to take forever for that ball to come down.

The camera finally moved down, trying to follow the ball, though the ball was hard to see. “It’s into the basket!” screamed announcer Matt Vasgersian, as if he was letting the viewers know that yes, you can finally cheer. The crowd went crazy. The cameras showed Bill Murray again, acting like a child who just saw Santa Claus flying over his house. Baez came out for an emphatic curtain call. It was only a 1-0 lead in Game 1 of the series, but this was clearly a moment to savor.

In the top of the ninth, Aroldis Chapman came on to do exactly what the Cubs envisioned when they acquired him from the Yankees back in July: to nail down a close postseason game in the ninth inning. The Giants were also looking for bullpen help during the season and were thought to maybe be a landing spot for Chapman. At this moment, we were all thankful that he was pitching for the Cubs and not against them. Chapman wowed the crowd by striking out Hernandez to start the ninth, throwing seven pitches all over 98 miles per hour. Of course, Chapman can throw hard, but perhaps he was feeding off the crowd’s energy after what happened the previous inning. And I’m sure the crowd was feeding off him as well.

Despite giving up a double to Posey with two outs, Chapman got Hunter Pence to ground out to finish off a 1-0 victory in the series opener. On this night, giving up a package that included top prospect Gleyber Torres to get Chapman appeared to be worth it. Losing Game 1 in a best-of-five series would have sent Cubs fans into full panic mode. As thrilling of a win as it was, fans also could breathe a big sigh of relief. The team had passed the first test.

It was as memorable as a Game 1 could possibly be. Even though it was “just” the Division Series, how could Cubs fans not get excited about the rest of October? There was still a lot of work to do – ten more wins to capture that treasured World Series Championship, including two more against the always dangerous Giants. But that could wait until tomorrow. For at least one night, everything was right with the world on the North Side of Chicago.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.