It can take ages to develop an identity, to build a legacy. Or in the case of the Wild Card Game, it can happen in seven years.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in this year’s Wild Card Games. We don’t even know for sure which teams are going to play in them. But we can have a pretty good idea of one thing: At least one of the two postseason-opening contests is going to bring the weird.
There have only been 14 iterations of the one-game matchup, 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 Zach Britton game” -- than by their year. But you know them.
This is a celebration of five of the most memorable. And remember, this has all happened in the past seven years.
National League, 2012: The Infield Fly Game (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 Matt 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.”
NL, 2013: The 'Cueee-To' Game (Pirates 6, Reds 2)
It is just about universally agreed that the Pirates have one of baseball’s true gems in PNC Park, and that's been the case since the day it opened. There was only one problem: Years of losing meant frequent small crowds, and not enough of a home-field advantage. Then Pittsburgh made a run at the postseason in 2012, and broke its playoff drought in 2013. And, goodness, did the Bucs have an advantage.
Marlon Byrd led off the second with a homer to put the home team ahead, then it got weird. With one out and Reds ace Johnny Cueto facing a 2-1 count to Russell Martin, the chant built to a crescendo: “Cueeee-to! Cueeee-to!”
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."
American League, 2014: The Royals Run Wild (Royals 9, A’s 8, in 12 innings)
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 rooted in putting the ball in play and running the bases aggressively. But with six outs to go in the 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 regular catcher Geo 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 the game in the ninth and won it in 12. Lester, a Trade Deadline acquisition who pitched brilliantly in the regular season, was left frustrated. The A’s didn’t make it back to the postseason until 2018. And Kansas City went on to win the pennant in '14 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.
AL, 2016: The Zach Britton Game (Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2 in 11 innings)
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 Cy Young Award candidate Zach Britton, who allowed four earned runs all year.
But Britton never pitched. He didn’t pitch against the heart of Toronto’s order in a tie game in the ninth. And he was waiting in the bullpen when Ubaldo Jimenez, he of the 5.44 ERA that year, went single-single-homer in the 11th to end the Orioles’ 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.”
Now, it was a run of right-handed hitters, and dangerous ones. Maybe Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion do the same damage against Britton that they did against Jimenez. It’s possible.
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.
NL, 2017: Archie Bradley’s Triple (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 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 excellent reliever in the person of Pat Neshek, was the key blow that sent Arizona to the NLDS. Bradley entered the game with six career hits and five 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.”
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.