The first official game of the postseason had everything. Outstanding pitching performances, big defensive plays, extra innings, a controversial hug, and a few clutch hits. Tony Wolters delivered the game-winning base hit off Kyle Hendricks in the 13th inning and the Colorado Rockies beat the Chicago Cubs 2-1 in a dramatic NL Wild Card Game. It was the first time in baseball history that a sudden-death playoff game has gone 13 innings. Both teams were coming off Game 163 defeats in playoff-like atmospheres the day prior, but this game had the added pressure of looming elimination for one team. The Rockies will now head to Milwaukee for Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday and the Cubs’ NLCS streak will end at 3. Here are three thoughts on the Rockies’ win:
1. A winner from the most unlikely of sources
Tony Wolters wasn’t even supposed to get in the game. The Rockies started Chris Iannetta at catcher, then put backup Drew Butera in the game in the seventh inning. Six innings later, the Rockies’ third catcher of the game stepped up to the plate due to necessity, not confidence in his abilities. It was a big spot, too: runners on the corners and two outs, with yet another chance to drive in the Rockies’ first run in almost five hours. Wolters, sporting a .170 batting average and a .577 OPS, got it done. He knocked a Kyle Hendricks changeup up the middle to drive in Trevor Story and finally break the tie. In October, anyone can be a hero.
2. This was an argument both for and against the NL adopting the DH
On the one hand, this absurd game was postseason baseball at its finest. One team was going home when it was over, regardless of how many innings, hours, and substitutions it took. Thus, it was intense until the very end, with each at-bat and decision magnified to the 10th degree. For baseball lovers, it was a lot of fun to see all of the twists and turns this marathon took. Cole Hamels and Kendricks — starting pitchers who the Cubs would’ve needed in the NLDS had they advanced — came on in relief in extra innings. Terrance Gore, used almost exclusively as a pinch-runner, received multiple at-bats for just the second time in his career because the Cubs didn’t have anyone else to bring in for him. On the other hand, though, did we really need to see Terrance Gore bat twice in this game? As the innings slogged on with backup-filled lineups failing to pick up big hits, it was hard not to wish guys like Anthony Rizzo and Charlie Blackmon were still playing. Both of those stars were lifted from the game because their teams needed to pinch-hit for pitchers, something that wouldn’t have happened in the American League where the DH is present. If Joe Maddon and Bud Black had the flexibility afforded by the DH, there would’ve been more at-bats by Blackmon and Rizzo and fewer by Pat Valaika and Victor Caratini.
3. It began with a pitcher’s duel fit for the big stage
Kyle Freeland and Jon Lester are very similar pitchers with one major difference. This was Freeland’s first start in the postseason. It was Lester’s 22nd. On this crisp night in Chicago, it was impossible to tell that one of them hadn’t been in this spot before. Freeland has been a revelation this year, posting the best ERA (2.85) by a Rockies starting pitcher in franchise history. On Tuesday night, in the biggest game of his life, he did what he’s done all year: change speeds effectively and paint the corners. When adversity came his way in the sixth in the form of a David Dahl misplay in right field, putting two men on for Anthony Rizzo, he calmly got the Cubs’ slugger to bounce into an inning-ending double-play. He was handed a run in the first inning and made it hold up for as long as he was out there, finishing his night having allowed just four hits and a walk in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. In his demeanor and the way he commanded the strike zone, Freeland looked a lot like, well, Jon Lester.
Lester pitched a beautiful game in his own right, but a shaky start was enough to leave him with a no-decision. A walk by Charlie Blackmon and a rocketed double by D.J. LeMahieu put the game's first two hitters in scoring position for Nolan Arenado, whose sacrifice fly drove in the game’s first run. From that point onwards, though? Vintage Lester. He scattered three more hits over the next 5.2 innings, striking out nine. Like Freeland, Lester had complete control of both sides of the plate, keeping hitters off balance with cutters inside and off-speed pitches away. When Lester struck out Matt Holliday — the star of the Rockies’ 2007 playoff run — to end the sixth, he let loose a ferocious display of emotion as he walked off the mound to an explosion of cheers from the Cubs faithful. He did everything he could to keep his team within striking distance until they eventually rallied with a Javy Baez game-tying single in the eighth.