For the first time in baseball history, four teams played two game 163s on the same day. Even more bizarre is that none of them were eliminated! The Rockies lost to the Dodgers and the Cubs lost to the Brewers, so now they’ll face off at Wrigley Field in the winner-take-all Wild Card. We previewed each of these teams yesterday, so here’s a few of the story lines to follow.
On Sunday, the Rockies defeated the Nationals in Denver. The game ended at 4:12 PM Mountain Time. This forced game 163, so they packed up and boarded a flight to Los Angeles. The flight itself takes about an two and half hours, which isn’t bad as far as flights go, but any bit of travel is tiring. They lost 5-2 to the Dodgers, finishing at approximately 4:26 PM Pacific Time (5:26 Mountain). Immediately they departed for Chicago, which is a four hour flight time. Tonight’s game will begin at 7 PM Central (6 PM Mountain).
In the span of about 29 hours, the Rockies will have played three games in three different time zones. Professional athletes are well-accustomed to travel, and private jets make the experience as comfortable as possible. However, there are several good reasons why teams usually play three or four games at a time in one city. This kind of frenetic travel schedule has to take a toll, especially at the end of a long season. Maybe the adrenaline of the playoffs can carry the Rockies a little farther, but the Cubs haven’t left Chicago since September 19 (including a three game “away” series against the White Sox). At least it’s just a short trip to Milwaukee for the winner.
A pair of southpaws take the mound for each team, with Jon Lester pitching for the Cubs and Kyle Freeland representing the Rockies. Lester has enjoyed an excellent 13-year career, but he especially shines in the postseason. He’s among the top ten all time in postseason starts, innings, and strikeouts. He was also named the 2016 NLCS MVP. For his career, he has a 2.74 RA9 in October.
Freeland’s 2018 season was one of the best pitching performances in Rockies history. (Granted that’s not saying much.) He set a team record for single season ERA (2.85), and his 4.2 fWAR is fifth best ever in Colorado. Advanced metrics don’t love him quite as much, but it’s still been a good season for the young lefty.
However, the prudent managerial decision would be to empty the bullpen at the first hint of trouble. The best example of this was last year’s AL Wild Card, in which Yankees ace Luis Severino was yanked after just a third of an inning. The relievers held the game in check and the Yankees advanced over the Twins.
The Rockies spent big money on their bullpen, but they might not have much of an advantage. Both teams accumulated 3.9 fWAR from their relievers this year, but Colorado needed just 517 innings to do so (fewest in the NL), whereas the Cubs leaned on relief pitching for 584 1⁄3 innings. Chicago has a deeper stable of reliable relievers than Colorado does, so the Cubs have a bit of an edge if this becomes a bullpen game.
Unlike division opponents, the Rockies and Cubs haven’t faced each other much. They split the season series evenly 3-3, but they haven’t played each other since May 2. This will be the first postseason match-up ever between the two teams, for whatever that’s worth. They haven’t completed any major trades with each other in a long time, though the 2011 trade of D.J. LeMahieu from the Cubs to the Rockies is still paying dividends. Really, there’s not much history to go on, be it recent or further back.
A one game playoff is the ultimate small sample size caveat. No one knows what will happen, but isn’t that what makes it fascinating?
Starting time: 8:08 PM EST
Stream: WatchESPN (TV sub. required)
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983