After a gruelling 162-game season, the fates of four of MLB’s best teams rest on one performance.
The Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies will participate in the 2017 Wild Card Games, which have to be considered among the most absurd (and drama-filled) events in all of sports.
All told, six wild-card winners have gone on to win the World Series since the league introduced the concept in 1994, with the 2014 San Francisco Giants the most recent squad to accomplish the feat.
Will any of this year’s participants be able to run the table and walk away as MLB champions? We make the case for each team.
New York Yankees
Yankees fans have had nightmares about what Dallas Keuchel did to their team in the 2015 Wild Card Game and Tuesday’s showdown with the Twins provides an opportunity to finally exorcise those demons.
New York’s all-star right-hander Luis Severino draws the assignment for the home side, and it will be interesting to see how the 23-year-old handles the immense pressure.
Should Severino falter, the Yankees have the relievers to help them navigate through not only Tuesday’s game, but the rest of the playoffs. Flamethrower Aroldis Chapman looms at the back end of the ‘pen but Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson and Dellin Betances all posted ERAs under 3.00 this season. A lights-out bullpen has become essential for playoff success, and New York definitely has one of the best around.
Led by MVP candidate and Rookie of the Year shoe-in Aaron Judge, the Yankees slugged more home runs than any other team in the majors this season. Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez will be getting their first tastes of the post-season but the Bronx Bombers have plenty of veteran leadership sprinkled in with the likes of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Todd Frazier and Matt Holliday. Having a collection of players who have been through the ringer before could be a major factor in helping guide the likes of Judge and Sanchez to the Fall Classic.
When you consider all factors, it doesn’t seem like the Twins have a chance to make it past the Yankees let alone win the World Series.
That kind of doubt is exactly what Minnesota has to latch on to and harness if it wants to make a deep run into October. Never before has a team made the playoffs the year after losing 100 or more games until this season’s Cinderella Twins. There is no real pressure on this team since no one expected them to be here in the first place.
Ervin Santana gives the Twins a strong option in the Wild Card Game as the veteran compiled a 3.28 ERA and logged an MLB-high five complete games (tied by Cleveland’s Corey Kluber). It’s doubtful Santana will be asked to go the distance in a win-or-go-home matchup, but he’s a reliable arm that should keep the Twins in whatever games he pitches.
Minnesota is going to have to embrace the underdog status and hope for some individual players to go on hot streaks. Speedster Byron Buxton is someone who can take over a game on his own, especially with runs at a premium in the post-season. He hit .300 in the second half of the season, and was only caught stealing once in his 30 attempts. He also provides excellent defence in centre field.
Miguel Sano is the Twins’ biggest power threat, but what he’ll contribute is a question mark considering he missed a stretch of 39 games near the end of the season before returning to play in Minnesota’s final three contests. The all-star slugger hit .264/.352/.507 with 28 home runs in only 114 games played. He was left off the Twins’ roster against the Yankees with his health status murky but should Minnesota advance, he has the ability to be a big difference-maker.
It’s certainly a longshot for Minnesota to make any noise, but the Twins have already made history once this season. Sometimes a no-pressure mentality can carry a team a long way.
Of all the wild-card contenders, the Diamondbacks seem to be the biggest threat — at least on paper. Elite front-line starting pitching becomes even more important in the playoffs, and Arizona has a pair of aces on its staff. Zack Greinke will get the ball at home in the Wild Card Game, and having a presence like that on the mound in a do-or-die contest is a daunting task for an opponent to overcome.
One of the problems of earning a wild-card berth is having to burn your best pitcher just to advance, which often sets you back in the division series, but the Diamondbacks have the luxury of being able to turn to standout left-hander Robbie Ray should they get past the Rockies. Ray pitched to a 2.89 ERA and posted an NL-best 12.1 K/9 rate. Being able to roll out both Greinke and Ray multiple times in a series gives the Diamondbacks a legitimate shot to go all the way.
Arizona’s bullpen doesn’t carry much name recognition, but the relief corps put together the NL’s second-best ERA of 3.78. Leading the charge is Archie Bradley, who was converted into a reliever prior to the season and answered the bell to the tune of a 1.73 ERA. Look for manager Torey Lovullo to deploy Bradley in Andrew Miller-esque fashion as the 25-year-old is able to pitch multiple innings if needed.
Finally, the Arizona offence boasts threats all over the diamond, with Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and trade-deadline acquisition J.D. Martinez each hitting at least 30 home runs. Throw in productive bats like David Peralta and A.J. Pollock, and the Diamondbacks have the offence to hang with anybody.
The Rockies will be hunting for their first championship this October, and they’ll be looking to finally erase the bad memories of their run in 2007. Colorado had won 21 of their past 22 games that year before they ran into the Boston Red Sox in the World Series and lost in a sweep.
Whereas those Rockies entered the playoffs on the high of their impressive winning streak, this year’s iteration limped into the post-season, having to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers up until the final Saturday of the regular season. Having to fight tooth-and-nail just to make it into the dance could serve the Rockies well as they have been playing meaningful, playoff-like games through September.
Should the Rockies advance, they meet the Dodgers in the next round. Colorado went 6-6 against their division rivals this season, but two of those losses came in meaningless games on the final weekend of the season once playoff positions were already locked in.
Buoyed by the National League’s highest-scoring offence, the Rockies will need to bash their way past their competition to cover up their starting pitching question marks. Perennial MVP candidate Nolan Arenado and historic lead-off man Charlie Blackmon anchor a lineup that posted a .781 team OPS (and an MLB-best .811 post-all-star break), but there is plenty of thunder from top to bottom.
The young, unproven rotation that posted the worst ERA and opponents’ batting average of any NL playoff squad is the biggest flaw this team has, but an offence as deadly as this one can mask a lot of those deficiencies.