The Wild Card, cosmically speaking, is usually thought of as a bonus. A playoff “in” for a plucky underdog club that, while falling short of the division title, has bested enough of its other intraleague competitors to have earned a lottery ticket that could propel them forward into the playoffs proper.
That’s usually the setup anyway. It’s certainly not the case for tonight’s Wild Card Game between the Rockies and the Cubs. Indeed, it feels like a consolation game, and both teams are likely ticked off that they have to play in it even if they’re grateful that they get to.
That’s particularly true for the Cubs who led or were at least tied atop the N.L. Central every single day from July 13 through, roughly, 4PM yesterday afternoon, when the Brewers vanquished them in the tiebreaker game. Heck, Chicago led by as many as five games in September. Their losing out on the division title is not really a “collapse” as we have defined that term of late — ask the 2011 Braves or Red Sox about that — but it’s certainly a deflation. Everyone outside of Milwaukee expected the Cubs to win the division and that they didn’t has to bum them out quite a bit. They were never playing for the Wild Card. For the 2018 Chicago Cubs, the Wild Card is a consolation prize. It’s the baseball equivalent of leaving a game show with a case of Rice-a-Roni instead of the brand new car.
It’s not quite so bad for Colorado, who only stood in first place in the NL West for a smattering of games in May and then shared it off-and-on with the Dodgers in September. Still, they had their destiny in their own hands as late as Saturday, before a bad loss to the Nationals forced yesterday’s tiebreaker. That probably does not sting quite as bad as the Cubs’ non-collapse stings, but the fact is they had to make a cross country flight last night with a bad taste in their mouths. They played in the Wild Card game last year. They lost it. They know how it feels to have to win a one-and-done game to move on and they did not want to be in that position again.
Still, they have to play this game and they have to win it if they wish to delay their offseason by another week or so. Let’s break it down, shall we?
The starting pitchers:
An easy call for Chicago. Jose Quintana got yesterday’s start because of how much rest everyone had (and because he usually owns the Brewers), but Lester has been their ace all year. If the Cubs are in an elimination game, and they are, Lester is who Joe Maddon wants on the bump.
Freeland has never pitched in the postseason and he’s pitching on three days rest, having thrown 96 pitches in the Rockies win over Washington on Friday. Still, he’s coming in hot, having gone 5-0 in September and 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break. Like Chicago, Colorado has its ace working this evening.
The Rockies had the second best run-scoring offense in the National League this year — and Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are a potent 1-2 punch — but the overall numbers are obviously affected by Coors Field and they are a team that certainly can be pitched to. The Cubs offense was sixth in runs scored, led the league in batting average and was second in OBP, but again, that feels misleading. The Cubs struggled mightily to score runs late in the season and couldn’t muster much at all against Milwaukee yesterday. Each team’s bats can go silent for long stretches.
The Cubs need Lester to go deep and/or the lineup to put them up big early, because their pen is on fumes right now. Cubs relievers were needed to get 20 outs Sunday and Maddon used six relievers in yesterday’s loss. Losing both of their closers to injury — both Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow are still on the shelf — has been rough for the Cubs. Look for Maddon to use starting pitchers in relief if this thing is close.
Colorado, meanwhile, has Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg and Jake McGee, all of whom are fresher than the Chicago relief corps (Oberg and McGee pitched yesterday, but tossed only eight and fifteen pitches, respectively).
Predictions are kind of meaningless in one-and-done baseball games. Anything can happen. One ball getting lost in the lights or one pitch failing to break as expected can change the whole game. As such, I won’t predict a winner here. I will say, though, that for the Cubs to have their best chance to win, Lester will need to be on top of his game to go deep in this game. For the Rockies to win, they will need, at the very least, a non-disaster start from Freeland and to get into the Cubs’ tired bullpen.
Both of these teams are entering this game grouchy. One of them is gonna be way more grouchy around 11pm Eastern this evening. Tune in to ESPN at 8PM eastern to see how that all plays out.