Remembering October: NLDS Game 2

October 8, 2016

2016 National League Division Series Game 2: Giants vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Cubs passed their first test of the 2016 postseason by winning a 1-0 thriller in Game 1 of this best-of-five series. As exciting as it was, the team had to quickly put that in the rear view mirror and focus on Game 2, as they did not want to let the Giants tie this series and steal home field advantage before the series shifted to San Francisco.

It was hard to imagine that Game 2 could top the intensity of Game 1, but there were still some good story lines. Joe Maddon showed great trust in Kyle Hendricks by giving him the ball in Game 2 over the reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Hendricks was not particularly great in the 2015 postseason, giving up five runs in 8.2 innings, including three home runs in his Game 2 start against the Cardinals in the NLDS. But Hendricks was coming off a breakthrough season in which he came out of seemingly nowhere to lead the league in ERA. Everyone was curious how he would handle the big stage this year.

With the Giants unable to use Madison Bumgarner until Game 3, manager Bruce Bochy turned to a right-hander the Cubs know very well. In 2008, the Cubs called up Jeff Samardzija, the former two-sport star at Notre Dame, and after a few years he became an effective starting pitcher at the big league level. The Cubs and Samardzija were unable to agree to a long-term contract extension, and he was part of the package that the Cubs sent to Oakland in 2014 in order to get current their current starting shortstop, Addison Russell.

Samardzija was a mainstay during the Cubs’ rebuilding years and was able to land a five-year contract with the Giants this past offseason. After signing the contract, he had a few choice words for his former team. “[A]s a veteran guy, it was becoming a joke,” Samardzija said at the time about the Cubs’ rebuilding process. “I just got so sick of hearing about it. They had to do what they had to do, but as a professional, you always want to be competing, not hearing some rhetoric every year. There are certain things you don’t forget.’’

Would he still remember that on this night? Would the Cubs “forget” what he said? Well, I don’t know whether Maddon posted any of those words in the clubhouse for inspiration or even talked about them before the game. But I personally saw this as a great opportunity for the Cubs to put their former teammate in his place.

It was my first time watching a playoff game on MLB Network – I don’t normally subscribe to it but took advantage of the free preview that was offered – and overall I thought their coverage was pretty good. I just wish more people around the country could have seen the game. And the open with Vin Scully was a really nice touch. With Bob Costas calling the game, it took me back to the 1990s when he was calling a lot of games for NBC.

After the Giants went quietly in the top of the first, Dexter Fowler got the crowd pumped up right away with a leadoff double. He was still standing on second with two outs, but Ben Zobrist hit a soft line drive to right that drove Fowler home. After pitching a scoreless top of the second, Hendricks came up with the bases loaded in the bottom half and lofted a fly ball to center that fell in, scoring two. Later in the inning, Kris Bryant hit a fly to left that Hunter Pence dove for, and though he got a glove on it, he was unable to make the play. Another run was in.

The Cubs were pulling away early, though an objective observer would probably feel bad for the Giants since they were getting a few tough breaks. The Cubs were out to a quick 4-0 lead, but none of the RBI hits were struck all that hard. After two innings and just 47 pitches, Bochy pulled the plug on Samardzija. The Cubs got to him, though he probably deserved a better fate. Unfortunately, Hendricks wouldn’t last much longer either. Still up 4-2 in the fourth, Hendricks was struck by a line drive by Angel Pagan and forced to leave the game. The scoreboard looked good, but it felt like a lot of air was let out of Wrigley Field. (Hendricks did not suffer any structural damage and would be able to make his next postseason start.)

Travis Wood came in and finished off the fourth, but that’s not what he would be remembered for in this game. In the bottom of the inning, the team still up 4-2, Wood took a George Kontos pitch and deposited it into the bleachers in left. He was only the second relief pitcher to ever homer in the postseason. Wood came out for a curtain call, much like Javier Baez did after his home run the night before. We can look back on it now as another moment to remember from early on in the playoffs. However, a little of the luster was taken away since MLB Network was running a taped interview with Bochy in the corner of the screen during the at-bat.

Whereas Game 1 had a quick pace and was a well-played pitchers’ duel, Game 2 just didn’t seem to have a smooth pace to it. But I suppose in the playoffs, you take wins however you can get them. Just like when Buster Posey was unable to score in the fourth inning of Game 1, the soft RBI hits and Pence’s inability to make the play on Bryant’s hit was yet another sign that maybe things were going to be different for the Cubs this year. At least in the first two games, that “even year magic” we’ve heard so much about didn’t seem to be helping the Giants here in 2016.

The Cubs were unable to do much for the rest of the game against the underbelly of the Giants’ bullpen, but it didn’t matter. The Cubs’ bullpen also held the Giants’ offense down. It was just a three-run lead, but the game never really felt in doubt. As one scoreless inning after another went by, the fans could taste a 2-0 series lead, on the verge of a return trip to the National League Championship Series. Maddon sent his prized midseason acquisition, Aroldis Chapman, out to get another save in the ninth inning. And again, Chapman wowed the crowd by blowing away Brandon Crawford and Kelby Tomlinson with fastballs at 102 MPH, sandwiched around a tough eight-pitch flyout from the veteran Pagan.

Despite getting just three RBIs from non-pitchers so far, the Cubs had a 2-0 series lead as the two teams headed to San Francisco. It seemed as if they were able to get out of Wrigley Field with two wins despite not being on top of their game. At this point, it was hard to know whether that was a good or a bad thing. After all, they wouldn’t have this passionate Wrigley Field crowd behind them in Game 3. But it was a team win, and the script of Game 2 was unpredictable. I guess that’s what makes the postseason so great.

Obviously, in a best-of-five postseason series, you’d rather have a 2-0 series lead than not. But as the Wrigley crowd sent their team off to San Francisco, we all needed to remember that despite a poor showing the first two games of the series, this is still the same Giants team that has won three championships in the past six years. Oh, and the seemingly invincible Madison Bumgarner would be waiting for the Cubs in Game 3. Even though we were celebrating another big win, there was still one more win to get. And as we were about to find out, it would not be easy.

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.