CHICAGO – Despair mutated into euphoria, and euphoria settled into nervousness, and nervousness morphed back into despair, and by the time the emotional madness of the longest win-or-go-home game in baseball history ended, those crammed into Wrigley Field could only feel resignation. The Chicago Cubs’ season was over.
The best team in the National League for most of the 2018 season saw its year end in bitter disappointment with a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies in Tuesday’s wild-card game. Almost right as the clock struck midnight, the Cubs’ finished their conversion into October pumpkin, their 95-win season all for naught. The Rockies advanced to the NL Division Series, where they’ll face the top-seeded Milwaukee Brewers, who avoided the wild-card game by beating the Cubs in a tie-breaking Game 163 on Monday.
Tony Wolters – the Rockies’ third catcher of the night – delivered the go-ahead single in the top of the 13th, an inning deeper than the record 12. It was the 23rd sudden-death postseason game in baseball history to go extra innings and the first since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, when the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in 10 innings. It was the first NL wild card game with free baseball, and Colorado, scoreless for 11 innings after a first-inning run, got all it needed from Wolters and saw Scott Oberg pitch a 1-2-3 13th to secure the victory.
With two outs in the 13th, Rockies shortstop Trevor Story laced a single into left field. Then Gerardo Parra pulled a single into right. Wolters went right back up the middle, punching a 79-mph Kyle Hendricks changeup into center, scoring Story. Hendricks was the third of four expected Cubs starters to pitch in the game, a sign of how invested the Cubs were – and how painful the loss was.
Three batters into the game, the Rockies had their first run. DJ LeMahieu followed Charlie Blackmon’s leadoff walk with a rocket double that got stuck in the left-center-field ivy, and Nolan Arenado scored Blackmon on a sacrifice fly. Cubs starter Jon Lester wiggled out of the jam with two strikeouts, which portended a brilliant six-inning, four-hit, one-run, one-walk, nine-strikeout start.
Kyle Freeland was even better. Going on three days’ rest for the first time in his professional career, Freeland’s array of late-moving pitches foiled the Cubs for 6 2/3 shutout innings. He threw. They flailed. It resembled September, in which Cubs hitters faltered as they blew the NL Central lead against Milwaukee.
For most of it, the number of the day was zero. The scoreboard high atop Wrigley, at the intersection of Sheffield and Waveland Avenues, bore seven zeroes on the Cubs’ line going into the eighth inning. Reliever Adam Ottavino, who had taken over for Freeland, wore No. 0. After walking Anthony Rizzo and allowing pinch runner Terrance Gore to take second, Ottavino faced Javier Báez with an 0-2 count. In 36 at-bats with that count this year, hitters had zero hits against Ottavino.
He threw a down-and-away slider. It wasn’t down enough, and it wasn’t away enough, and Baez yanked it into left-center field and hustled into second for a double as Gore tied the game and sent the crowd of 40,151 into a frenzy.
From there, the teams were simply in survival mode. Cubs manager Joe Maddon called on reliever Pedro Strop, who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 13 because of a hamstring injury, and got an inning out of him. Rockies manager Bud Black rode closer Wade Davis for four outs. Cubs starter Cole Hamels cruised through the 10th before slinking out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 11th.
In the end, the Cubs couldn’t fulfill Báez’s bluster from before the game, when he suggested Chicago simply needed to shrug off the words of those who were down on them.
“If we do that, there’s no team that can beat us, and they know that,” Baez said. “So that’s why they run their mouth a lot, because they know we’re the best. Even when we’re struggling, we are the head of everybody.”
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