2016 has been the pits and 2017 can’t come soon enough. Since we’re in the final countdown to the new year, what better way to launch into the new year than taking a look back at our top moments from 2016. Let’s go! THIS IS NUMBER FIVE!
#5 – The Wildcard Round
The Wildcard games had an interesting result in 2015. The Pirates fell to the Chicago Jake Arrietas and the Houston Astros beat out the New York Yankees in a game that was put out of reach by Colby Rasmus and Dallas Keuchel. It’s not like these games weren’t interesting to watch or anything, but in the scope of 2016’s games, they come off farther pedestrian.
What made 2016 different were the insanely potent matchups of pitching rivals and divisional foes, which added up to two heart pounding, tour-de-force games where every pitch was measured and calculated. The caliber of baseball we saw in the Wildcard round was unmatched in the Divisional series and those games will live in MLB lore for years to come.
Let’s start in the American League, as the Baltimore Orioles traversed north of the border to face the Toronto Blue Jays. This game was not supposed to be close. The Orioles pitching staff, with Zach Britton being the exception, struggled most of the year and when faced with a very hard hitting Blue Jays offense, they seemed extremely overmatched. Chris Tillman, the Ace of the future in Camden Yards, took the hill and stayed solid through his 4.1 innings only being pulled after surrendering a second run in the 5th. Marcus Stroman, who sat in the other dugout, was not to be outmatched, going 6 strong innings only giving up a two-run dinger to Mark Trumbo. The game stayed tied at two runs a piece, and headed into extra innings.
A good baseball game is a chess match, one where you are can see moves coming in advance, but wait for the other guy to blink. You try to catch your opponent looking the other way and force their hand. It’s beat by beat, blow by blow and it’s just the best. It was a stare down. However, there comes a moment where you see the future very clearly in an instant, as if you’re looking at the aftermath of the of the soon to be past. Keith Olbermann once said, “There’s just enough time in Baseball to see tragedy or triumph coming your way.” For example, in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a tied ballgame, Luis Gonzalez stepped up to the plate against Mariano Rivera. Tim McCarver, Joe Buck’s long time postseason co-commenter, casually mentions that Rivera throws inside to Lefties, which results in a lot of broken bat jam shots to the shallow outfield. A shot of the field reveals that Joe Torre has pulled his Yankee infielders in and kept his outfielders at their regular depth. You could tell the game was over. To finish Olbermann’s quote, “But there it was for Yankee fans, it was ‘They’ve got them positioned wrong!’ Season’s over.” Sure enough. The Diamondback’s win it with a bloop hit that hits just behind the infield dirt at shortstop.
What does this have to do with Baltimore and Toronto? In the bottom of the 11th inning, Buck Showalter elected to go to his veteran Starter Ubaldo Jimenez with one out. Meanwhile, Zach Britton, the best closer in the game this year who let up a total of ONE run in the second half of the season, remained unused in the Orioles bullpen. Ubaldo Jimenez gave up 14 runs in the same amount of innings in the second half. Ubaldo Jimenz came in and threw 5 pitches; two were hit for singles and the final pitch was hit out of the ballpark by Edwin Encarnacion.
It was incredible. Utter heartbreak, utter insanity and instant history in one moment. In the blink of an eye it was over. Your best weapon stays holstered and the other team celebrates. In games like those, it’s a long walk back to the dugout.
THE VERY NEXT NIGHT, we were given round two of the Wild Card Round where the San Francisco Giants faced off against the New York Mets. This game shaved years off my life. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I am a nervous eater. During game 5 of the World Series I ordered Jimmy Johns in the 8th inning. This wildcard game was no different. The pitching slate of Madison Bumgarner vs. Noah Syndergaard was one of mythic proportions. Bumgarner carried the Giants through the 2014 World Series and was incredible in 2016, which comes as no surprise. Noah Syndergaard, on the other hand, became the backbone of the 2016 Mets. The Mets rotation was forecasted to be the best rotation in Baseball, but they ended up being the most injured rotation in baseball. Syndergaard was the constant and is now the fan favorite amongst Mets faithful.
Thor and MadBum were masterful in the first half of the game. MadBum was poised to go the distance after the Mets FOR SOME REASON THAT HAS YET TO BE EXPLAINED TO ANYONE decided to only see 21 pitches in the first three innings. The reason the Giants are in the second wildcard spot is because the bullpen imploded every chance they could get. So why would you be swinging at everything?
The Giants didn’t have as much success at the plate either. The flame throwing Syndergaard fanned 10 Giants and didn’t give up a hit until the 6th inning. The Mets outhit the Giants 3 to 1 though 6 innings of play. In the 7th, the Giants would get another base knock, but still not cross the plate. The Giants were struggling with Noah Syndergaard’s speed and movement and it seemed there only hope was to get him out of the game.
In the 8th inning, Terry Collins pulled Noah Syndergaard after 109 pitches, in favor of Addison Reed. Guess what happened? The Giants reached third base for the first time in the game. Reed would get out of the inning unscathed, but every Mets fans knew Jeurys Familia would be in to pitch the ninth and that was both comforting and horrifying.
The Mets would take the field in the ninth, and as predicted Familia came from the bullpen. First batter he faces? DOUBLE. This is when your Mets PTSD kicks in just a little bit, but it’s bottom of the order, it’s fine! Next batter is Angel Pagan. Strikeout. Great. Next up: Joe Panik. WALK. Conor Gillaspie steps up to the plate, easy double play guy. At this moment they cut to the Giants dugout and you can see that Madison Bumgarner is still in the dugout, not in the on deck circle. They’re gonna pull him! We have a shot! We could pull this off! We might have a-
And then the world stops turning because Gillaspie has just put a Familia fastball over the wall in Right Field. The wind gets knocked out of Citi Field, and you just know in that it’s over. It’s Alex Gordon’s dinger in Game 1 of the World Series, and Familia’s blown saves in Games 4 and 5. You’ve been there before. It’s Carlos Beltran watching a curveball, it’s Mike Piazza’s long fly ball in Game 5 that lands in Bernie Williams’ glove at the stroke of midnight, which is poetic as hell but also hurts a little because you keep getting so close.
Bumgarner completes the shutout and the Giants celebrate in the Visitors locker room just as the Kansas City Royals did a year before. It was a shootout all game, and when one guy blinks the other guys can fire the fatal shot. It’s simple.
What put the 2016 Wildcard Round on this list is not that because we had two late inning homers or how well the pitchers did or how close a beer came to a Baltimore outfielder, but how it illuminated the beauty of the game. Baseball is a simple game on the surface, but underneath it’s full of little details that can alter the game. A two miles-per-hour difference on a fastball, or a half and inch drop on a curveball can be major mistake or a minor setback. It’s a game of exploiting your enemies weaknesses, while acknowledging their strengths. It’s about negotiating an immovable object, not just blasting straight through it. Earl Weaver, the late, great Orioles Manager, put it best saying, “You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”