CHICAGO — Tuesday’s National League wild-card game left us with a lot of questions about identity.
Who are the Cubs? World Series champions 23 months ago, they went from being division leaders to being out of the postseason so swiftly this year that someone on an extended weekend getaway might have missed it altogether.
Who are the Rockies? Unlikely candidates to be in the NLDS just a month ago, they persevered through three games in three days in three different cities to arrive at a matchup against the top-seeded Brewers beginning Thursday.
As Rockies catcher Tony Wolters, the unlikely hero of the wild-card game, put it, they’re a team that bounces back from adversity.
“This game can kick your butt sometimes. There’s a lot of adversity, but it’s never, I’m not going to ever — I’m not ever going to let that take me down,” Wolters, drenched in the champagne that had been sprayed around the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field in celebration of a 2-1, 13-inning Rockies win, said. Wolters’ RBI single up the middle off of Kyle Hendricks in the top of the 13th broke a stalemate that went on for five innings.
The days before the wild-card game, and then the game itself, told us a lot about the Rockies, who weren’t necessarily a sexy pick in the National League,
The odds were stacked against them throughout as they beat the Nationals 12-0 at home to preserve a tie with the Dodgers atop the NL West; lost a Game 163 in Los Angeles for the division crown, and then traveled to Chicago for the wild-card game.
“They stay on point and focused about what they do,” Rockies manager Bud Black said of his players after the victory Tuesday. “There’s a competitiveness and a pride in all big league players. . . . These guys, to a man, that group in there, they do it, which is great. And that’s what makes professional athletes professional athletes, because of moments like this, where Denver to LA to Chicago in three days and hard-fought games. That’s what they do, that’s what makes guys special.”
What the Rockies did from Sunday to Tuesday is especially rare. The thousands of miles of traveling and the hours they spent on planes didn’t leave them a lot of energy to perform well on the field. Maybe Monday’s loss to the Dodgers showed that, but they bounced back against the Cubs.
Before the game, Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado recognized what they were up against.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge, but we’re more than prepared. We’re in the playoffs. I mean, I don’t know how to — I can’t explain that anymore,” he said. “I think the fact that we have a chance to do something special today, it’s easy to get fired up for these games. No sleep, a lot of sleep, it don’t matter.”
The wild-card game was a classic pitchers’ duel between Chicago’s Jon Lester, who came in with more postseason pitching experience than anyone in baseball, and Colorado’s Kyle Freeland, who was making his first playoff start ever.
“Got to start your postseason experience somewhere,” Freeland said after Tuesday’s game.
It might be easy to be casual about it after the fact, but Freeland admitted that his adrenaline was up. Black said that he recognized in the early innings that his starter was doing too much throwing and not enough pitching. Freeland didn’t allow the moment to swallow him up, though.
While Lester gave up only one run while striking out nine over six innings, Freeland did him a touch better, lasting into the seventh inning without allowing a run and scattering four hits.
With the Wrigley crowd on its feet for the last five innings, the Rockies were a home run or even just a bloop hit away from losing. The Cubs, who had the most playoff experience of any team in baseball over the past four years, sputtered and ultimately failed. In the eighth, Javy Baez was stranded at second base after he had driven in the tying run. The inning before, Chicago had loaded the bases for Jason Heyward, who struck out.
The Rockies, meanwhile, put runners on in nearly every inning after the Cubs tied the game. Wolters, who said afterward that he had to get up to stretch four different times to stay loose during the almost five-hour game, came into the postseason with a .170 batting average and without a hit since Sept. 10. No matter. He singled, and the Rockies won.
Presented with a list of reasons why their season should have ended Tuesday, they celebrated instead. Now they’ll face what is easily the hottest team in baseball in the next round. Milwaukee went 20-7 in September and October, including an 11-1 stretch to close out the season. Its offense is explosive and its bullpen is as good as any in the majors.
There’s a lot more adversity ahead for the Rockies.
“I think that adversity makes you stronger,” Wolters said.