CHICAGO -- The Giants have spent the past seven weeks looking like the antithesis of a playoff team.
But hand the ball to Madison Bumgarner in the September sunshine, then play with some opportunistic aggression behind him, and you begin to see the possibilities take shape.
Bumgarner shined in what could be a Game 1 matchup a month from now.
He struck out 10 in six innings to outduel defending N.L. Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, the Giants hustled to support him, their savvy infielders put their heads together to record a huge out in the ninth and their bullpen made the pitches under duress to protect a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
Feel a bit like October baseball in September, Madison?
"It did, just because you're going up against the team ... I mean, I guess they didn't clinch yet, but they'll be there," Bumgarner said. "And we plan on being there. So it's a playoff-type matchup.
"Your mindset really doesn't change, though. You're just trying to compete and make pitches." The Giants are 73-62. Through 135 games in 2014, when they last rode in a World Series parade, they were 73-62.
"As bad as it seems, we're still in a better spot than we were in 2014," Bumgarner said. "We've still got our division in our sights, but it's about getting in. If you get in, it's a whole different deal."
The Giants would prefer to reclaim the lead in the N.L. West and enter as division winners, and not just because the Cubs are a near lock to face the wild-card entrant in an Division Series.
But Bruce Bochy's team served a reminder that it can will its way to victories against anyone, especially with Bumgarner on the mound. They snapped a six-game losing streak at Wrigley Field that included a season-crippling four-game sweep here last season and one-run losses in the first two games of this series.
"Really, the first two games were good games," Bochy said. "We just lined out. I've said that they could use a little luck. It's about that sometimes."
The Giants collected just three hits in each of their two losses. In Saturday's victory, they claimed four. Their three runs off Arrieta were more a product of hustle, awareness and opportunity.
The Cubs handed Bumgarner a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Angel Pagan hit a one-out double off Arrieta (16-6) and third baseman Tommy La Stella overthrew first base after fielding Hunter Pence's ground ball.
They manufactured a run in the fourth inning when Joe Panik reached on a two-out single, advanced on a passed ball, took third on a wild pitch and scored on Eduardo Nez's single.
Brandon Crawford created another run all by himself after hitting a one-out single in the sixth. With a full count to Panik, Bochy put his runner in motion. Panik struck out and Crawford stole second base despite hitting the dirt with all the grace of a pencil eraser rubbing against a sheet of loose leaf.
Crawford stayed alert, and with Cubs third baseman Javier Baez shifted over to defend Brandon Belt, he virtually walked to third base as Arrieta held the ball. The awareness led to a run, since Arrieta proceeded to throw a wild pitch.
"Baez was a little flat footed on the pitch before that, I noticed," Crawford said. "I thought if I could get a walking lead, I could beat him flat footed. When Arrieta looked for the sign, I thought that was my best chance."
Bumgarner needed the insurance run, even on a masterful afternoon when he struck out 10 and didn't walk a batter in six innings.
Baez hustled to score from second base on an infield hit in the fifth inning and the Cubs scratched another run on a sacrifice fly in the sixth. But Bumgarner pumped a fist after winning a 10-pitch battle with Matt Szczur, striking him out on a slider to strand two runners in scoring position and preserve a 3-2 lead.
The Giants bullpen preserved it from there, but it wasn't easy.
Hunter Strickland got Addison Russell to line out with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, and closer Santiago Casilla inherited a runner at first base in the ninth after left-hander Will Smith issued a walk to Anthony Rizzo.
The Giants' defensive awareness made Casilla's task much easier.
Dexter Fowler put down a sacrifice bunt toward third and Posey, who had noticed Rizzo making an aggressive turn around second base, sprinted to cover third. Panik, who took the throw at first base, saw that Posey was running and knew something was up.
"And then I saw Rizzo take a couple hard steps," Panik said. "So I ran toward him, and once he stopped, I threw (to second base). It was heads up for Crawford to be there."
Crawford said the play doesn't develop unless Posey first has the sense to cover third.
"Yeah, that's what we're used to doing," Crawford said. "I don't know if it's showing lately. But that's the way we try to play."
Casilla still had to get through Bryant, the presumptive N.L. MVP. He did, inducing a broken-bat pop-up that Crawford gloved to seal a victory that they needed. Although they haven't fallen out of a playoff spot in their desultory second half, this might have been the game that made them feel like a playoff team again.
"We haven't been playing bad baseball," Bumgarner said. "We've just been coming up a little short. It doesn't take much to get back on the right track, and hopefully after this we're getting there."
The 41-year-old's next appearance will be his first as a Giant since the 2003 N.L. Division Series against the Florida Marlins. Bochy said he would use Nathan in the sixth and seventh innings, but wouldn't rule out a save situation when Santiago Casilla needed a break.
Nathan, a six-time All-Star who ranks eighth all time with 377 career saves, has made just four major league appearances over the past two seasons. He had a second Tommy John surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow after just one game for the Detroit Tigers in 2015; the Cubs signed him and he appeared in three games for them this season - striking out four in two scoreless innings - before giving him his release.
The Giants originally took Nathan in the sixth round of the 1995 draft as a shortstop before he converted to the mound.
The Giants had to get creative to create a 40-man roster space for Nathan. They recalled right-hander Ray Black and placed him on the 60-day disabled list with a right elbow bone spur.