CHICAGO — This is how far the Giants, who held baseball’s best record at the All-Star break, have fallen:
They made a victory out of not getting embarrassed on Friday.
There wasn’t a win to count in the standings or on the hand-turned Wrigley Field scoreboard, which displayed a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs. The Giants fell to 15-29 since the All-Star break, and at this rate, their slide from contention will be more than a threat.
At least Hunter Pence rescued them from an even more dispiriting result. His home run with two outs in the seventh inning not only broke up Jon Lester’s no-hit bid, but it ended what had become an unconscionable 0 for 40 stretch that began in Thursday’s loss.
Pence’s home run in the seventh inning Friday was the Giants’ first hit since Pence’s single in the third inning Thursday. They went 12 consecutive innings without a hit — something that hadn’t happened to them since June 26-27, 1980, when the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Jerry Reuss no-hit them at Candlestick Park.
Lester was cruising with his no-hitter in the truest sense. He had thrown only 66 pitches through six innings, and for the Cubs, the game held all the markers for a historic afternoon.
For the Giants (72-62), they simply felt marked by the beast. Brandon Crawford used the whole field, scorching a lineout to first base in the second inning and scorching a lineout that third baseman Kris Bryant left his spikes to snag in the fifth. Eduardo Nez lined a comebacker that Lester, who wouldn’t win a Gold Glove if it were a participation trophy, somehow smothered.
When center fielder Dexter Fowler made a diving catch of pinch hitter Kelby Tomlinson’s sinking line drive in the sixth inning, the sellout crowd stood and cheered.
But Lester left a 1-2 fastball over the plate to Pence, who hit his second home run in as many days.
Before Pence’s home run, the Cubs had retired 40 of previous 41 Giants batters they faced. Buster Posey’s walk in the first inning against Lester was the Giants’ only baserunner; the Cubs retired the final 20 batters in Thursday’s game.
Suddenly, the Giants’ ambitions went from avoiding embarrassment to knocking off the league’s best team.
Then, because it always seems to happen this way, Crawford was rewarded for much softer contact. He slipped a ground ball under the glove of second baseman Ben Zobrist and hustled for a double when he saw the Cubs outfielders, perhaps stiff from inactivity, were slow to react.
With the tying run in scoring position, the Giants’ accursed luck returned soon enough. Nez hit a hard lineout to third base, then spiked his bat and helmet in a show of anger.
The Giants chose Albert Suarez over Matt Cain to be their No. 5 starter down the stretch, even though the former was a non-roster minor league free agent this spring and the latter still is owed more than $30 million.
Suarez did a creditable job, working four tidy innings out of five and minimizing the damage the one time the Cubs made a mess of things.
The Cubs set up their two-run rally in the third inning when Javier Baez picked an outside pitch out of the dirt and guided an opposite-way double down the first-base line. David Ross followed with a double into the left-field corner, advanced on Lester’s sacrifice and scored on Dexter Fowler’s floating single to center.
Suarez’s biggest mistake might have been when he double-clutched after fielding Lester’s bunt, preventing him from taking a shot at Ross at third base. But second baseman Joe Panik made a shovel throw with his glove after fielding Zobrists’ grounder to end the 33-pitch inning without further damage.
Pence walked with two outs in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate, but plate umpire Tom Hallion, who so memorably ended the 2010 NLCS in Philadelphia with Brian Wilson on the mound, delivered his roundhouse strike call to ring up Crawford as Lester went the distance.
The Giants entered this series with a 47-28 record when they hit a home run. Pence is the only player to go deep in two games. Yet the Giants have dropped a pair of one-run losses.
The Giants’ deficit in the NL West stands at 21/2 games, pending the Dodgers’ result later Friday. The Giants continue to lead the NL wild-card race, for now.