CHICAGO — No team in professional sports lugs more baggage than the Cubs.
During the previous 107 years spent in the wilderness, the bleak trinkets they’ve amassed include a billy goat, a black cat and a Bartman. This season, success has brought outsized expectations, yet another anchor they must shoulder to complete their march to a long-coveted World Series championship.
But the Cubs established Friday night that they will not be dragged down by that weight, beating the Giants, 1-0, on Javier Baez’s eighth-inning home run, the deciding moment in a tense NL Division Series opener.
“The game of baseball is 27 outs,” Baez said after his homer decided a pitchers’ duel between the Giants’ Johnny Cueto and the Cubs’ Jon Lester. “Because we haven’t scored a run in the eighth doesn’t mean you’re going to give up.”
For nine innings, the Giants showed their championship pedigree, using their gloves to squash rallies and keep a hostile crowd at bay. They had followed the same script only two days earlier in the wild-card game at Citi Field, when Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer in the ninth inning ended the Mets’ season.
This time it was Cueto who led the charge, delivering his second straight postseason complete game. And as he did in his last October start — when he beat the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series as a member of the Royals — Cueto used the same rhythm-killing hitches in his delivery to flummox the Cubs. He finished with 10 strikeouts.
But with Lester on the mound, the Cubs proved equal to the task, hanging on for their first 1-0 win in the postseason since beating the White Sox in the 1906 World Series. “It was a classic kind of an old-school baseball game,” manager Joe Maddon said.
It came down to a pitching matchup that seemed dictated by fate. Before the 2015 season, the Giants pursued Lester in free agency, hoping he would form a stout tandem with Madison Bumgarner atop the starting rotation. Seduced by the pursuit of history, Lester took less money to join the Cubs. A year later, the Giants added Cueto as their second ace. And the two dueled through the night in NLDS Game 1.
Lester tossed eight scoreless innings — the longest postseason outing of his career — and scattered five hits.
Cueto did not blink until the eighth, on his 108th pitch, a 93- mph fastball that caught too much of the plate. Realizing it immediately, he whipped his head around in disgust.
The ball wedged in the basket above the leftfield wall. The Friendly Confines demanded a curtain call. Baez, in the lineup for his defense, obliged.
He later said his first instinct had been to bunt. With one out in a scoreless slog, he had simply wanted to get on base because Cueto had shown no signs of slowing. “That timing that he does, that quick pitch, it’s hard to get the timing down,” he said.
But Gillaspie choked off the possibility of a bunt by playing in at third base, so Baez switched gears. Noticing the way Cueto had pitched him inside all game, Baez knew where to look.
The basket above the leftfield wall extends over the playing field, absolving Baez of potential embarrassment. He entered a home run trot, not realizing that the wind had knocked down his drive. “It barely went out,” he said. “But I still will take it.”
So will the Cubs, who sidestepped the pressure that comes with dropping the first game of a five-game series, especially when it’s at home.
Aroldis Chapman survived Buster Posey’s double in the ninth to preserve the victory, providing reassurance that perhaps this year, things will be different.
The Giants may be proven, but they are not perfect, as evidenced by a pair of gaffes on the basepaths.
Gillaspie wasted a leadoff single in the third inning when he was picked off first base by Cubs catcher David Ross.
The play came with a wrinkle. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo traded his mitt for a glove, then jogged to the left of the mound to guard against a sacrifice bunt by Cueto. Second baseman Baez stationed himself at first.
Ross called for a pitchout, then threw behind Gillaspie, catching him napping. Baez applied the tag and pumped his fist, celebrating a tactic that the Cubs had practiced late in the regular season.
In the fourth, hesitation by Posey might have cost his team a run. With Posey at first, Angel Pagan poked a drive to left, and when Ben Zobrist whiffed with his dive, the ball rolled toward the ivy. Posey is no speedster, but he likely would have scored if he had not slowed as he approached second. He had to stop at third, and Brandon Crawford grounded out to end the threat.
Still, the battle-tested Giants did not relent. Kelby Tomlinson made a pair of diving plays at second base in support of Cueto.
Cueto could have been lifted for a pinch hitter when his spot came up in the seventh. But through the years, Giants manager Bruce Bochy has proved adept at reading the invisible fuel gauge that is affixed to every pitcher. In Cueto, he saw more in the tank.
Said Bochy: “Just one pitch got away from him.”
A year ago, the Cubs crashed October, a precocious group that played with wads of house money. The ride ended with a thud in the NLCS against the Mets, a four-game sweep in which they were smothered by superior pitching.
The Cubs hoped to lean on the lessons of that experience against the Giants, owners of three championships in the previous six years.
“A lot of us have placed big expectations on ourselves,” said Kris Bryant, one of the brilliant young stars the Cubs are banking on to reverse their curse. “So I think we’re all ready for it as a team.”
The Cubs have not won a pennant since 1945. They have not won a World Series since 1908. Not since 1935 — two years before Wrigley Field’s famed ivy took root — had they won 100 games.
But these Cubs are no lovable losers. They’re a 103-win juggernaut that outscored opponents by 252 runs in the regular season. They are the handiwork of a hired gun, Theo Epstein. Half boy wonder, half mad scientist, Epstein was brought to the North Side specifically for his experience ridding the Red Sox of another hideous curse.
On Friday night, Mike Ditka, Eddie Vedder and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the 42,148 who packed into Wrigley Field expecting the start of something big.
They were not disappointed.