You may have overlooked the Rockies this season. No big deal there. Plenty of us did even after watching them make a nice playoff run in 2017 and go on an offseason bullpen spending spree.
On July 1, there was zero reason to believe in the Rockies, who were 41-43 and in fourth place in the National League West.
• NL Wild Card Game presented by Hankook Tire: Today, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
And then something clicked. Actually, pretty much everything clicked. Blueprints are maddening things. In the end, though, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich got his right.
:: NL Wild Card Game presented by Hankook Tire: Tuesday on ESPN ::
The Rockies were the NL's best team at 50-28 after July 2. Colorado's bullpen morphed into one of baseball's best, and the starting rotation found young aces in Kyle Freeland and German Marquez. Once the hitters got going, the Rockies scored the second-most runs in the NL in September and went 19-9.
• Gear up for the postseason:Rockies | Cubs
Now the Rockies are headed to Wrigley Field for tonight's NL Wild Card Game against a Cubs team that's making a franchise-record fourth straight postseason appearance.
The Cubs got to the Wild Card Game by losing to the Brewers, 3-1, in an NL Central tiebreaker on Monday. Meanwhile, the Rockies lost to the Dodgers, 5-2, in the NL West tiebreaker.
Cubs fans will see the Wild Card Game as a disappointment in a season in which their team was seen as a World Series favorite. That the Cubs made it to this point after a season in which their rotation got just eight starts from projected No. 1 starter Yu Darvish, while third baseman Kristopher Bryant missed 61 games, is a nice accomplishment that won't be seen as that. Also, the bullpen was hit hard by injuries and slumps in the final month. In the end, the Cubs are still standing.
Let's break down the Cubs and Rockies position by position:
Willson Contreras did not have his best offensive season, but he remains one of the NL's five best catchers in terms of overall game. His throwing and pitch framing, which the Cubs emphasize, made him an indispensable part of these past three postseason teams. Contreras was third in WAR (2.8), wOBA (.323) and wRC+ (101) among NL catchers. The Rockies place a similar defensive focus on their catchers, and while neither Chris Iannetta, who'll start the Wild Card Game against lefty Jonathan Lester, nor Tony Wolters had huge offensive seasons, they were a big part of Colorado's best pitching success.
If this is what passes as a down year for Anthony Rizzo, it's a reminder of how good he has been the past four seasons in averaging 35 doubles and 32 home runs. He finished sixth among NL first basemen in doubles (29) and tied for fourth in homers (25) this season and had a .376 OBP. As for the Rockies, Ian Desmond put a nice finishing touch on his season by hitting .281 in September, and while there were only seven extra-base hits, his .355 OBP made him a valuable part of the lineup.
How did Daniel Murphy ever slip through waivers all the way to the Cubs? If he ends up hoisting a World Series trophy -- or maybe even if he doesn't -- plenty of general managers ought to be asking themselves and their staffs that question. When Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was placed on administrative leave, Murphy's presence allowed Javier Baez to shift to short and give the overall lineup more depth. Colorado's DJ LeMahieu is excellent. He's a two-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner who is two seasons removed from a batting title.
Slight advantage: Cubs
Baez seems almost certain to finish first or second in NL MVP Award voting, but Colorado's Trevor Story has become a foundational-type player as well. Story led all NL shortstops with 37 home runs and 42 doubles and was second with 27 stolen bases. Baez got most of his numbers while playing second base this season and ended with 40 doubles, 34 home runs and NL-leading 111 RBIs.
Slight advantage: Cubs
Typically, this matchup would have been a push between Nolan Arenado of the Rockies and Bryant of the Cubs. But Bryant missed 61 games with injuries and was unable to come close to his numbers of the previous season, and besides, he's playing left field with left-hander Freeland on the hill. Cubs rookie David Bote, a right-handed hitter, got the start at third with the left-handed-hitting Kyle Schwarber going to the bench. Arenado has become the gold standard at his position, leading all Major League third basemen in home runs (38) and OPS (.932).
Big advantage: Rockies
This will likely be Matthew Holliday's first start since Sept. 22 as the veteran slugger is 7-for-15 with a double and three RBIs against Lester, compared to Carlos Gonzalez, who is 2-for-14 against the left-hander. Bryant will slide from third to left against Freeland, and his athleticism has made the transition look easy. His track record gives him the edge.
Charlie Blackmon was again the gold standard for NL center fielders and was first at his position in home runs (29), second in doubles (31) and fourth in triples (seven). Albert Almora Jr. got the start over Jason Heyward in center for the Cubs, with the southpaw Freeland starting for Colorado. Almora is an excellent defender and hit .295 with a .742 OPS vs. lefties this season, but he's struggled since the All-Star break, hitting .232 with a .546 OPS over 168 at-bats.
You didn't count out Benjamin Zobrist out, did you? Plenty of people did last season when he hit .232. Besides, how many 37-year-olds have big bounceback seasons? Zobrist didn't just have a bounceback season. He had one of the best years of his 13-season career with 28 doubles, a .378 OBP and 124 wRC+. And don't forget -- Zobrist was World Series MVP in 2016 when the Cubs won it all. David Dahl, who will slide over from left field, finished with a tremendous two months, especially in September when he had nine home runs and a 1.012 OPS. He homered six times in the final eight regular-season games.
Freeland figured out how to pitch at Coors Field with a historically low 2.40 ERA, but he was very good most places, including Wrigley Field, where he allowed three earned runs in seven innings in his only start. Lester tied for the NL lead with 18 wins and had a solid September (five starts, 1.52 ERA), but his peripherals are not what they once were. He'll be making his 22nd postseason start on Tuesday and would surprise almost no one by pitching the Cubs into the NLDS. Freeland is going on short rest, so this is close, but he's been a much more effective pitcher this year.
Slight advantage: Rockies
This may be the largest gap between these two teams. Colorado's bullpen has been excellent with Scott Oberg, Chris Rusin and others getting the ball to closer Wade Davis. Only the Dodgers and Brewers had lower bullpen ERAs in September than the Rockies, who averaged 10.02 strikeouts per nine innings. Cubs manager Joe Maddon lost his closer Brandon Morrow for the remainder of the season to injury and also didn't have his No. 2 closer, Pedro Strop, for a stretch. Maddon pushed his starters deeper into games for a time and probably will try that in the Wild Card Game.
Big advantage: Rockies