There are no flukes in a 162-game season. Cream rises, talent and skill win out, and the best teams make the postseason.
In a one-game wild card? Well, they call it the coin flip game for a reason.
The Nationals, despite playing like baseball’s best team since May 24, still find themselves staring up at the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. With 6.5 games to make up with less than four weeks to go, it will be a tall task to catch the Braves. And yet, the Nats are doing everything they can to make it happen.
Winning a division sends a team straight to the League Divisional Series, guaranteeing a five-game series. Winning a wild card berth sends a team to a dreaded elimination game, where anything can happen. In fact, just twice in MLB history has a team made it to the World Series after playing in the Wild Card Game, and both teams came in 2014.
The Nationals know just how critical it is to avoid such a scenario, thanks to the past seven years of examples. Here are some of the crazier wild card games since the format changed before the 2012 season
Orioles 5, Rangers 1 (2012)
The second-ever MLB Wild Card Game, and the first in the American League, came in Texas in 2012. In a perfect encapsulation of the chaos of a sudden-death matchup, the Orioles started journeyman Joe Saunders against the defending AL champs, while the Rangers threw out dominant ace Yu Darvish.
Despite their heavy underdog status, the O’s shut down the Rangers after allowing an early run, and eventually pulled away late to win 5-1. It was Baltimore’s return to the postseason after a decade-plus drought, and it was a prime example of how on any given day, any team in baseball can beat the best.
Royals 9, Athletics 8 (2014)
This was a bonkers game that eventually propelled the Royals to the World Series, becoming the first team to win their league pennant after playing in the one-game Wild Card.
The game went 12 innings and featured half a dozen lead changes, culminating with the Royals, in their first postseason game in nearly three decades, walking off the A’s in the bottom of the 12th after losing the lead once again in the top half of the frame.
Making the game even sweeter for Royals fans was the fact that Oakland had previously played in Kansas City before moving the franchise out west.
Giants 8, Pirates 0 (2014) / Giants 3, Mets 0 (2016)
I’m looping these two together because they stand out for the same reason. That reason’s name? Madison Bumgarner.
The greatest postseason pitcher of his generation, Bumgarner played a key role in the Giants’ dynastic run early this decade. These games stand out, especially since both were elimination scenarios.
Bumgarner tossed complete game shutouts in both, with a combined line of 18 innings, 8 hits, 3 walks and 16 strikeouts. Two legendary performances from a legendary pitcher.
Cubs 4, Pirates 0 (2015)
Quick moment to brag here: I was at this game. It was as a fan, not working, and ended up being an experience I’ll never forget.
Jake Arrieta, after wrapping up his Cy Young season, tossed an absolute gem. A complete game shutout, scattering five hits (all singles) across nine innings and striking out 11. It was the first postseason complete game in MLB history in which a pitcher struck out 10+ without issuing a walk.
One of the greatest postseason performances of all time overshadowed an incredible matchup between division rivals who each won at least 97 games, yet still had to play each other thanks to the Cardinals’ 100-win season.
Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2 (2016)
A great game memorable mostly for its final moments. The game was tied 2-2 through five innings, but neither team scored again through the 10th inning.
Then, in the bottom of the 11th, with two runners on, Buck Showalter decided to allow Ubaldo Jimenez face Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion, rather than call upon Zack Britton. Britton, notably, had just wrapped up perhaps the greatest single-season in relief pitcher history, even garnering down-ballot interest for the Cy Young.
Instead of bringing on his closer in a tie game on the road, Showalter went with Jimenez, Encarnacion blasted the fourth elimination game walk-off home run in MLB history, and the Orioles haven’t been back to the postseason since.
Yankees 8, Twins 4 (2017)
The Twins scored three runs in the top of the first inning and were sitting pretty. But the Yankees immediately tied it up in the bottom of the first, proceeding to dominate the rest of the game.
THAT'S HOW YOU RESPOND!!!— New York Yankees (@Yankees) October 4, 2017
TIE GAME! pic.twitter.com/Pnobo1I0V2
This one is notable for Yankees ace Luis Severino failing to record a second out in the game, ultimately allowing three runs on four hits and a walk through 0.1 innings. But New York showed off the power of a strong, deep bullpen, keeping the team in the game while their offense took off.
Rockies 2, Cubs 1 (2018)
By nature, just about any extra-inning elimination game is going to be edge-of-your-seat exciting, and last year’s edition was no different.
Both teams were coming off one-game playoffs to determine their respective division winners, then had to face each other for the NL Wild Card. The starters for each pitched quality starts, and the Cubs tied the game in the bottom of the 8th inning at 1-1 to ultimately force extra innings.
In the top of the 13th, the Rockies managed to push across a run, and the Cubs were unable to rally in the bottom of the inning, ending one of the most crushing two-day stretches for a team in playoff history.
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