Coming into Wednesday night, you might have thought it would be difficult for the National League wild card game to match its American League counterpart in terms of intrigue, unpredictability, and sheer madcap zaniness. What were the odds? Apparently not steep enough.
Wednesday night’s affair between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks spiralled out of control for three hours and 54 minutes until it eventually resulted in an 11-8 Diamondbacks victory. This game saw 14 pitchers, 30 hits, and 85 plate appearances. The Diamondbacks hit one less triple in the game than the Toronto Blue Jays did all season. Nine separate players had two hits or more. It was pretty nuts.
And while the Diamondbacks led the entire way through, the Rockies never looked defeated, launching comeback attempt after comeback attempt until they couldn’t any longer. Colorado didn’t so much lose, they just ran out of outs.
Still, the Diamondbacks deserved to win on the grounds of being a superior team in just about all facets of the game, and will now open an NL Division Series vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers Friday night. All told, the better team won in both wild card games, which was far from a guarantee when you’re dealing with a one-game playoff in baseball of all sports.
And that’s a good thing, because now the post-season should get really fun. The eight best teams in baseball are the eight teams still playing, as it should be. But before we get to that, we must look back, and discuss your NL wild card game takeaways.
The D is for destiny
If you ever doubted that the Diamondbacks were destined to win this game, might I present the following scenario for your consideration.
It was the bottom of the seventh inning and Arizona was clinging to a one-run lead with two runners on and two out. The pitcher’s spot was due up. If ever there was a time for Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo to go to his bench for a pinch-hitter, this was it.
And yet, he didn’t. Lovullo let Archie Bradley, a right-handed relief pitcher with a .098/.097/.098 slash line in 66 career plate appearances, step to the plate to face Pat Neshek, a fellow relief pitcher who was among baseball’s best this season, pitching to a 1.59 ERA in 71 appearances.
Right-handed batters like Bradley — the vast majority of them actual hitters, not relief pitchers — were batting .201/.213/.273 against Neshek this season. In 235 plate appearances, he had allowed only 15 extra-base hits, and not one triple.
So, of course Archie Bradley hit a triple. And he didn’t just hit it, he crushed it, lining a 2-2 slider 381-feet into the left-centre field alley with an exit velocity of exactly 100-mph to cash both runners and extend his team’s lead. It was the first extra base hit of Bradley’s career. Go ahead, try to figure out baseball.
And yet, about 10 minutes after his two-out, two-strike heroics, there was Bradley, out on the mound to do the job he’s actually paid to do, and not doing it particularly well at all. He hung a curveball to Nolan Arenado, who crushed it 424-feet over the centre-field wall. Then he left a fastball on the plate to Trevor Story, who crushed it 377-feet over the right-field wall.
Just like that, he handed both the runs he drove in back to the Rockies. That was about the point when this writer stopped trying to make sense of, or even keep up with, the dramatic swings of this ridiculous game, and that turned out to be a wise concession, as the Diamondbacks rallied yet again in the bottom of the eighth, scoring four runs after Rockies reliever Greg Holland twice came within a strike of finishing a scoreless inning.
Catcher Jeff Mathis (Jeff Mathis!), he of the career .198/.256/.309 slash line over 13 seasons, punctuated that rally with a bunt single (a bunt single!) that scored Arizona’s 11th run of the evening and gave his closer, the ever-combustible Fernando Rodney, enough room to engineer a minor disaster in the ninth and still escape with a win. Again — go ahead and try to figure out baseball.
Back when we were young, Jon Gray started this ballgame for the Rockies and, boy, his night could’ve gone better.
He surrendered back-to-back singles to the game’s first two batters and then hung a curveball to the wrong guy to hang a curveball to, Paul Goldschmidt. The perennial all-star made the most of his first post-season at-bat since he was a 23-year-old rookie in 2011, crushing Gray’s curveball 384-feet to left to give his team an instant three-run lead.
Gray got out of the first, but two more runs scored in the second, and that was it for him, as he left his first post-season start after recording only four outs.
The Rockies right-hander likely doesn’t get the credit he deserves for a fine season in which he posted a 3.67 ERA and 3.18 FIP across 20 starts, eight of them at the hitter’s haven that is Coors Field. He was a fine choice to start this game, but he left far too many pitches on the plate in the early going, especially the breaking ball right in Goldschmidt’s happy place, and paid for it.
With Luis Severino, Ervin Santana, and now Gray — all terrific starters for their teams this season — each faltering under the pressure of a wild card game, it’s worth wondering if there’s something to be said about the unique stress the one-game playoff environment puts on a starting pitcher.
Consider that the four starters in this year’s wild card games combined to complete only 7.1 innings. The demand to not let your team fall behind early is exceptionally high, and with the opposition spending the days leading up to the game focusing intensely on video and scouting reports from your prior starts, the margin for error is as slim as ever. Let your nerves get to you, leave a pitch where you shouldn’t, and odds are that ball’s not coming back.
We were expecting better
Good for you, Zack Greinke, you’re the only starting pitcher in the two wild card games to throw a pitch in the third inning. Not so good for you, Zack Greinke, you didn’t make it out of the fourth.
Greinke’s collapse was one of the more surprising things in a game full of surprises, especially after he looked dominant in the early going, retiring the first seven batters he faced in short order. Greinke was putting his fastball where he wanted to, getting soft contact with his change-up and slider, and flipping up a 70-mph curveball every now and then to really mess up the timing of Colorado hitters.
He cruised into the fourth inning with a six-run lead, but gave up a series of not-well-struck singles as Colorado began to rally by hitting balls where fielders were not. Then Jonathan Lucroy stayed with a fastball away and drove it into the right-field corner for a double, before Alexi Amarista hit a first-pitch single on a curveball right at the bottom of the zone. And just like that, Greinke’s night was over. It was the 2009 Cy Young winner’s shortest outing in 10 career post-season starts.
After Greinke let the Rockies back in the game and exited his start early, Lovullo turned to the weapon he kept in his bullpen for just such an occasion: left-hander Robbie Ray.
Ray was a starter for the Diamondbacks all season, and a pretty good one at that, pitching to a 2.89 ERA over 162 innings. But Lovullo wasn’t messing around with his two-run lead, and Ray gave his manager what he was asking for, keeping Colorado in check over his 2.1 innings pitched.
He did surrender a 409-foot double to Lucroy to lead off the seventh, a run that would eventually score on a wild pitch and a sacrifice bunt after Ray left the game. But he was otherwise close to untouchable, ramping his fastball up to 96 mph while throwing a steady dose of sliders on his way to nine swinging strikes.
Lovullo would have probably preferred Ray didn’t pitch at all Wednesday so he could start Game 1 of the NLDS. And you can be sure the Dodgers were happy to see Ray used as extensively as he was (he threw 34 pitches), which could potentially preclude him from even starting Game 2. But, desperate times.
A big reason why Colorado lost
Safe to say that when Rockies manager Bud Black dreamed up his ideal scenario for this game, it did not include Scott Oberg and his 4.94 ERA taking the mound in the second inning.
That’s perhaps unfair to Oberg, who came in throwing 98-mph seeds and got out of a tough jam with a couple strikeouts. But the point stands: Gray’s short start put Black and the Rockies bullpen in an awfully tough spot, one they were not able to overcome.
While New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi found a way to accumulate 26 outs with his loaded bullpen Tuesday night, Colorado’s relief corps is far from the murderers’ row that shortens games in the Bronx. The unspectacular Tyler Anderson (5.02 ERA over 86 innings this season) followed Oberg and promptly surrendered a two-run homer to the equally unspectacular Daniel Descalso (82 OPS+ this season) as the Diamondbacks surged ahead at the time, 6-0.
The Rockies would of course battle back, but Neshek, Carlos Estevez and Holland all surrendered runs throughout the late innings, as Black burned through his bullpen, searching in vain for a relief pitcher who could keep Arizona’s bats under control while his offence chipped away at the lead.
Never is a team’s need for a strong, shutdown bullpen ever as magnified as in the post-season, and the Rockies’ lack of reliable relief is a very big reason why they came in second Wednesday night.