It took an extra day of the season and two Games 163, but the National League wild-card game is finally set. On Monday, the Brewers completed their second-half surge to snatch the NL Central crown from the Cubs, relegating Chicago to the play-in playoff for the first time since 2015. Later that afternoon, the Dodgers held off the hard-charging Rockies to clinch the NL West and send Colorado to its second straight wild-card game, which will be played at 8:05 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Oct. 2, at Wrigley Field.
How They Got Here
The Cubs were in control of the Central late, with a 3 ½-game lead over Milwaukee for first on Sept. 18; at that point, FanGraphs gave Chicago a 95.1% chance of winning its third straight division title. But a blazing finish from the Brewers, who won 10 of their last 11 games, helped them catch and top their rivals, who had held at least a share of first place in the division since July 13.
As for Colorado, a late surge—19–9 in September and an eight-game win streak in the season’s final week—helped it briefly pull ahead of Los Angeles in the West, only to fall back into a tie that was resolved on Monday. Still, that the Rockies are here at all is impressive: They were eight games out of first in the division in late June, then ripped off a 40–27 second half to get back into contention.
Despite losing Game 163, the Cubs are in good shape for the Wild Card Game. For one, they’ll be playing at home, as they have the better record (95–68). On top of that, they’ll have Jon Lester on the hill. The 34-year-old lefty was solid in 2018, posting a 3.32 ERA, 129 ERA+ and 149 strikeouts in 181 2/3 innings, though signs of decline poked through the surface. His strikeout and walk rates were both at their worst since 2013, his ground-ball rate of 37.7% was a big drop from his career 46.2 mark, and he saw dips in his chase and swinging-strike rates as his average fastball velocity fell to 91 mph.
Nevertheless, Lester was strong in September after rough months of July (6.46 ERA) and August (5.81), with a 1.52 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings. Oddly, he was far better against righties (.696 OPS against) than lefties (.878) on the year. He’s not a threat to go deep into games: He made it into the seventh only seven times in 32 outings and averaged just 5 2/3 innings per start, though he threw 100 or more pitches in half of his turns. Like most pitchers, he struggled the more times a lineup saw him, with a .780 OPS in his third trip through the order.
Opposing him is fellow southpaw Kyle Freeland, who put together a Cy Young-caliber season at age 25. Freeland finished fourth in the NL in Wins Above Replacement (8.2) and ERA+ (165) and fifth in ERA (2.85) in 202 1/3 innings, striking out 173. He’s a mirror image of late-career Lester: Not a hard-thrower or a whiff machine, the Colorado native instead gets lots of groundballs and soft contact.
Freeland was strong against righthanders (.704 OPS), and lefthanders couldn’t touch him, hitting just .185/.264/.255. Like Lester, he has trouble once a lineup turns over a third time, with his OPS against jumping from .611 on the second look to .772 after that. Despite that, he routinely worked long into the night: 16 of his 33 starts took him past the sixth inning, though he never went beyond the seventh. Of note is that he’ll be pitching Tuesday on three days’ rest, something he’s done only once in his short career.
Due to injuries and some slumping key hitters, Chicago’s lineup wasn’t the world-crushing force we’ve seen the two seasons prior. The Cubs’ team OPS+ of 95 was below the league average of 97, and the team’s .411 slugging percentage ranked just 13th in the majors. Still, between MVP candidate Javy Báez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Murphy, and the rejuvenated Ben Zobrist, the Cubs’ starting nine remains dangerous, particularly with Rizzo on a tear since the All-Star break.
There are holes. Willson Contreras hit just .203/.295/.299 in the second half. Jason Heyward climbed within reach of league average at the plate but no further. Centerfield was a rotating collection of mediocre at-bats. And Bryant is coming off a shoulder injury that cost him a third of the season and sapped his power. Facing the lefty Freeland, expect manager Joe Maddon to stick with his Game 163 lineup, with one possible change being Bryant or Ian Happ in leftfield instead of the lefty-swinging Schwarber.
The Rockies’ offense, meanwhile, was quietly awful, with a team OPS+ of 90. Nolan Arenado (the NL home run champ), Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon were the excellent centerpieces. But the lineup was hampered by down years from DJ LeMahieu, Ian Desmond and an injured Chris Iannetta hurt coupled with Colorado’s stubborn insistence on playing Desmond and Gerardo Parra regularly. Helping matters is David Dahl, the former top prospect who’s finally healthy and raked down the stretch, hitting .298/.333/.679 with nine homers in September. He’ll likely draw the start against the lefty Lester, as Colorado’s bench offers little platoon help save veteran slugger Matt Holliday, who signed late in the year and is hitting well in his final ride (.288/.422/.442 in 64 plate appearances).
Like last October, the Cubs’ biggest issue is the bullpen, which is bereft of trustworthy options. Maddon is without his two best relievers in Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop, forcing him to gamble in the late innings with Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards, Jr., and Justin Wilson. That group has struggled, with each posting an ERA above 4.15 in September; Wilson and Cishek were front and center in the Brewers’ eighth-inning rally in Game 163. Maddon doesn’t have safer choices, though: The rest of his bullpen is a poor collection of specialists, declining veterans and Triple A arms pressed desperately into service. Amazingly, his best relievers last month were career mediocrities Jesse Chavez and Jorge De La Rosa, though the former may not be available on Tuesday after pitching two innings against Milwaukee.
Colorado doesn’t have much better to offer. The Rockies’ bullpen was one of the league’s worst this year, with a 4.63 ERA that ranked 26th in the majors. Righty Adam Ottavino (2.43 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 77 innings) is manager Bud Black’s best bet amid a sea of veteran struggle. Wade Davis collected 43 saves despite a 4.13 ERA; righty Bryan Shaw had a 5.93 mark; lefty Jake McGee checked in at 6.62. Late and tight, expect to see a lot of Ottavino, Korean righty Seunghwan Oh, and groundball specialist Scott Oberg. The ninth inning with Davis—who was the Cubs’ closer last year and was awful in the postseason—promise to be shaky at best.
A better lineup and slightly less arson-prone bullpen make the difference for Chicago, which sets up an NL Central rematch with the Brewers in the Division Series.