With the American League Divisional champions locked in weeks ago, it’s been a waiting game for the Red Sox, Astros and Indians to see who the fourth team in their exclusive club would be. With the small-market (and small payroll) Athletics traveling to New York for a showdown with the heavily-favored 100-win Yankees, they employed an unusual strategy to attack the Bronx Bombers’ lineup. Going into the wildcard game, the A’s decided not to rely on their strongest starter, instead favoring a collaborative approach using a number of relievers in sequence. It’s great to be creative, but the Yankees found the flaw in the strategy early, putting up two runs in the bottom of the first against “starter” Liam Hendricks, who was pulled after the first inning. The Yankees stretched the lead out in the sixth, adding four runs, and another in the eighth. A two-run eighth for the A’s would prove to be too little, too late to counter the contributions of New York sluggers Aaron Judge and Luke Voit, who each produced a pair of RBIs.
New York will move on to face the AL East Champion Red Sox, who’ve won more games (108-54) this season than in any other year in the history of the franchise. The other ALDS matchup will feature the AL West Champion Astros (103-59) hosting the AL Central’s lone representative, the Indians who clinched early following a scorching-hot August but have faded (or have they rested) down the stretch.
High drama reigned in the NL in the run up to the post season, with not one, but two single-game playoffs to decide divisional champions. Only Atlanta enjoyed a stress-free cruise down the home stretch to get rested and healthy before the ALDS. Milwaukee bested the Cubs to secure the NL Central, while Dodgers beat out the Rockies for an NL West title that most people thought would be theirs by birthright alone.
Which left the Rockies and the Cubs, who won the second-most games in the NL this year, in a one game sudden-death playoff for the National League Wildcard. Remember when everyone hated the new wild card format?
Remember when no one wanted TWO wild card teams per league?
Yeah. All that nonsense is out the window, now.
Tuesday night’s game at Wrigley Field was the perfect example of why baseball can be insanely exciting, if the stakes are high enough. The long, hot spring and summer of baseball season can wear down even the most dedicated fans, but when teams are well-matched in a sudden-death atmosphere, and that game delivers everything we expect and more, it’s a thing to behold. Gone was the 162-game season that both teams had played.
Gone was the single- game Divisional playoff that both teams had lost. The only thing that mattered was nine innings to decide who moves on and who goes home. Jon Lester pitched a gem for the home town Cubs, allowing only one run, and striking out nine in six full innings of work. Sure, they trailed by a run as he exited the game, but they’d been here before. The Cubs trailed in forty-six of their ninety-five wins this season. But this night the Cubs just couldn’t capitalize on any offensive opportunities until an eighth inning double from Javier Baez scored Terrance Gore, tying the game up to start the ninth inning. And that’s how it stayed through the ninth, and the tenth, eleventh and twelfth innings. How much fun was the extra-innings sudden death affair? Javier Baez even hugged Nolan Arenado after being tagged out on the base paths in the top of the eleventh. (Yes, that probably should have been an interference call. Arenado blew it by hugging back instead of attempting to throw to second.) Each team left at least ten runners stranded as the night wore on and bullpens ran thin, a total of fifteen pitchers were used in the marathon game that didn’t want to end. It seemed that neither team would gain an advantage until the top of the thirteenth inning, when the Rockies put together an unlikely, but somehow inevitable two-out rally consisting of three consecutive singles to break the tie. Trevor Story, Gerardo Parra and of course, Tony Wolters found gaps in the Cubs defense.
With a one-run lead, Scott Oberg struck out the side to secure the win for Colorado, who will next move on to face the Brewers in the NLDS.
In the other NLDS matchup, the Brave will need to contend with the Dodgers, who have won the season series five games to two.