Two evenly matched rivals on one side, two seemingly mismatched foes on the other. Four of the sport’s most historic franchises and two of its most venerable ballparks. This year’s Wild Card Games bring plenty to the table before the first pitch is thrown.
The thing is, the Wild Card Game has established that it doesn’t need big brands or fierce rivalries to shine. It tends to bring its own brand of entertainment no matter who’s playing.
While it can take ages to develop an identity, to build a legacy, it can also happen in less than a decade. We don't know what's going to happen at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium the next two nights. But we can have a pretty good idea of one thing: Somehow, it's probably going to bring the weird.
There have been only 16 iterations of the Wild Card Game, but nearly half of them -- more if you're feeling generous -- have provided an indelible memory of something unusual. They're games you know more by their description -- "the Infield Fly Game" or "the Zack Britton Game" -- than by their year. But you know them.
What will we call this year’s games? The great part is, we have absolutely no idea. Either way, this is a celebration of seven of the most memorable previous games -- chronologically, since ranking them hardly seems like a fair task. And remember, this has all happened since 2012.
1. The Infield Fly Game (National League, 2012)
Cardinals 6, Braves 3
Perhaps we should have seen this whole trend coming. Because the tone was set in the very first Wild Card Game played.
With two on, one out, and St. Louis leading by three in the eighth inning, Andrelton Simmons lifted a lazy fly ball to shallow left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma ranged back. Outfielder Matthew Holliday came in. It dropped between them -- decidedly in the outfield, not the infield -- but umpire Sam Holbrook called for the infield fly rule.
Simmons was out. Two batters later, Michael Bourn struck out and the rally was over. Soon, so was the Braves' season. It was an ugly scene, the game delayed as fans threw debris on the field.
It wasn't just a costly call for the Braves -- it was a legitimately perplexing one. Perhaps defensible, but not obvious. And Holbrook was very late to call it, not signaling until the ball was almost on the ground. That all added up to a lot of peeved -- and confused -- Braves and Braves fans.
"It didn't register in anybody's mind that could be called," said Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, "until the umpires started to come in and then we were like, 'Wait, what did he just call?' We had seen [Holliday] had run in. It wasn't even an option in our heads. For him to call that was baffling. I don't think anybody can ever accept that. That wasn't the right call."
Naturally it's remembered differently in St. Louis.
"I think it's one of those things where it looked bad because he was in the outfield," said Holliday. "But that was an infield fly 10 out of 10 times. Obviously with the home crowd and the ball drops in, it looks bad. But I think that was the right call."
2. The "Cue-To" Game (NL, 2013)
Pirates 6, Reds 2
It's just about universally agreed that the Pirates have one of baseball's true gems in PNC Park. There was only one problem with that: years of losing meant frequent small crowds and not enough of a home-field advantage. Then Pittsburgh competed in 2012, and it broke its postseason drought in '13. And goodness did the Bucs have an advantage.
That's when Cueto just … dropped the ball. On the ensuing pitch, he served up a homer to Martin. The Pirates tacked on a run in the third and chased Cueto in the fourth, holding on for a 6-2 win. PNC had never been that raucous before, and maybe hasn't since.
"The crowd was electric," said Martin. "They were chanting Cueto's name; Cueto ended up fumbling the ball on the mound and kind of started laughing, and the next pitch I hit a home run to extend our lead to 2-0 And it just -- the energy and sound of the crowd as I was rounding the bases, I'll never forget that, it felt like the ground was shaking beneath me."
There are those who will argue that Cueto just dropped the ball, because sometimes a pitcher drops a baseball. There are plenty of others who will not.
"The noise was deafening," said legendary Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman. "I don't ever remember being in an outdoor ballpark where the noise was potentially a distraction as far as the Reds were concerned. ... Johnny Cueto could handle anything, but I truly believe that the crowd that night rattled him."
3. The Royals Run Wild (American League, 2014)
Royals 9, A's 8
One of the most memorable postseason runs in recent years was thisclose to not happening. Over the 2014 and '15 postseasons, the Royals galvanized a fan base and entertained a nation with a throwback brand of baseball based rooted in putting the ball in play and running the bases aggressively. But with six outs to go in the AL Wild Card Game, they were on the brink of elimination, trailing by four runs.
Then Alcides Escobar slapped a leadoff single off Jon Lester. With A's starting catcher Geovany Soto having left the game due to injury, and Lester struggling to hold runners, the Royals ran wild. Escobar promptly stole second, scoring on Lorenzo Cain's single. Cain stole, and scored on Billy Butler's single. Eric Hosmer scored on reliever Luke Gregerson's wild pitch.
Over an eight-batter span, Kansas City piled up three singles, two walks and four stolen bases en route to a rally that changed the game and the postseason. The Royals tied it in the ninth and won it in 12. Lester, a Deadline acquisition who pitched brilliantly in the regular season, was left frustrated. Oakland didn't make it back to the postseason until this year. And Kansas City went on to win the pennant in 2014 and the World Series in '15.
"We knew we could run on Jon Lester, too," then-Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz recalls. "We had talked to enough teams that had played against him, and also in talking to our scouts, we knew that at that point in his career he just wasn't comfortable throwing over to first. So we knew we could get as big a lead as we wanted. The problem was convincing our guys they could."
Once they did, all they needed was a few baserunners. The rest is in fact history.
4. The Zack Britton Game (AL, 2016)
Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2
For the flipside of an almost-wasn't, let's ponder a what-might-have-been. The 2016 Orioles had a dangerous offense, postseason experience, and some seriously potent arms in the bullpen -- highlighted by AL Cy Young Award candidate Zack Britton, who allowed four earned runs all year.
But Britton never pitched. He didn't pitch against the heart of Toronto's order with the game tied in the ninth. And he was waiting in the bullpen when Ubaldo Jimenez -- who had a 5.44 ERA that year -- allowed single-single-homer in the 11th to end Baltimore's season. Yes, the O's were on the road, and so yes, they still would have needed a save to win the game. But waiting for that save meant that O's manager Buck Showalter had to face his team in the clubhouse without having used his most fearsome weapon.
"I remember everybody kept looking down to their bullpen, and he just wasn't coming in," said Blue Jays slugger Justin Smoak. "And so, yeah, still shocked. I think he'd [have thrown] two or three innings if he had to. But yeah, that was a shock."
But maybe Britton locks it down, and the heart of the Baltimore order takes a lead in the 12th. Manny Machado was scheduled to lead off the next half inning. And it's not as through Britton couldn't get more than three outs. Just two days earlier he'd pitched 1 2/3 innings.
But the O's never found out. Britton watched from the bullpen. And Baltimore hasn't sniffed the postseason since.
5. Archie Bradley's Triple (NL, 2017)
D-backs 11, Rockies 8
If you had told the D-backs, or the Rockies, that Archie Bradley would play a key role in their Wild Card Game showdown in 2017, it wouldn't have surprised a soul. If you'd told them he'd do so with his bat? That might have raised some eyebrows.
But that's what happened. The reliever, then 25, exceeded his season RBI total on one swing and changed the entire tone of the game. Bradley's two-run triple in the seventh, off another pretty exceptional reliever in Pat Neshek, was the key blow that sent Arizona to the NL Division Series. Bradley entered the game with six career hits and four RBIs, and one of each in 2017.
Bradley -- already something of a cult hero in Arizona due to his distinctive beard, colorful personality and dominant performance -- had retired DJ LeMahieu to end the top of the seventh. His friend and roommate Jake Lamb led off the bottom of the inning with a single, Daniel Descalso walked and Bradley came to bat with two on and two out.
The sidewinding Neshek hung a 2-2 slider, and Bradley hammered the pitch into the gap in left-center. Bradley never hesitated, digging for third the whole way, and slid in with the triple. Chase Field erupted. The game still had a few twists and turns to offer, but the D-backs held on for an 11-8 win.
"It's the loudest thing I've ever heard," Bradley said. "Still to this day the thing I remember most is looking into the dugout and the whole stadium was chanting my name. That was something you dream about since you're a kid to have an impact on a game and have the whole stadium chanting your name and it was happening. It was just crazy."
6. The Rockies endure (NL, 2018)
Rockies 2, Cubs 1 (13 innings)
This was an awfully unlikely game before it even started. With 11 scheduled games left in the season, the Cubs held a 3 1/2-game division lead while the Rockies were 1 1/2 games out of the playoff picture. But Chicago stumbled and Colorado surged, and 162 games were not enough to set the field.
The Cubs lost to the Brewers in an NL Central tiebreaker game, and the Rockies lost to the Dodgers in a one-game battle for the West, leaving them to face each other for survival. That meant the Rockies played in Denver on Sunday, Sept. 30, in Los Angeles on Monday, Oct. 1, and Chicago on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
It did not faze them. Ace Kyle Freeland went 6 2/3 strong innings, and though Javier Báez tied the game at 1 in the eighth, the Rockies hung in to force extras. On and on it went, until .170-hitting Tony Wolters singled home the game-winning run against Kyle Hendricks, one of the Cubs’ best starters, in the 13th.
The game lasted four hours and 55 minutes, and it was by both innings and time the longest winner-take-all postseason game in history.
The Rox’s reward? Another trip, though fortunately a very short one up the highway to Milwaukee. They ran out of gas and were swept, but it was quite a run just to get there.
7. The Nats break through (NL, 2019)
Nationals 4, Brewers 3
As with 2018, the context is a huge part of the story here. For six years, Washington had been knocking on the door in October, only to see promising seasons end in agony. The 2012 collapse against the Cardinals, the 2014 heartbreak against San Francisco -- postseason frustration was becoming an unwelcome part of the Nationals’ brand.
So when the Brewers took an early lead against Max Scherzer, then handed the game over to their vaunted bullpen, it was easy to think that more of the same was in store. Reminder: We never, ever know what’s coming in October.
With a two-run lead in the eighth, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell turned to the all-but-unhittable Josh Hader, and Hader started out strong, with two strikeouts sandwiching a hit batter. But Nats legend Ryan Zimmerman poked a single. Anthony Rendon walked. And suddenly you had as tasty a matchup as could be imagined: dominant lefty Hader vs. emerging superstar (and left-handed hitter) Juan Soto.
Soto worked a 1-1 count and Hader fed him a high fastball over the plate. Soto turned on it and drove it to left, guaranteeing one run and probably two. And then … right fielder Trent Grisham just missed the ball. As it rolled and Grisham chased, Rendon scored all the way from first. Soto ended up being tagged out in a rundown, but as Ernie Johnson said on the national broadcast, “Nobody in this joint cares.”
Washington held on in the top of the ninth, and the rally delivered the franchise’s first postseason advancement. Three more were to come, as the Nats roared to their first World Series title.