At the end of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates were arguably the best team in the National League -- playing well down the stretch, dominating. Because they failed to win the NL Central, however, they had to get through the wild-card game’s bottleneck, and in ’14, they faced Madison Bumgarner at the outset of the greatest postseason pitching performance of all time, and the next year, they faced Jake Arrieta at the end of his historic second-half domination. Twice, in the winner-take-all games, they were quickly dispatched.
The wild-card game is probably unfair and unquestionably unforgiving, likely to turn on one big swing or mistake or performance. With that in mind, here are the most pivotal matchups ahead in the AL and NL wild-card games.
Key American League wild-card matchups
Ervin Santana against Yankee Stadium’s dimensions: The place has been unkind to him, as it is with all right-handed starting pitchers with a tendency to generate fly balls. He is 0-5 with a 6.43 ERA in new Yankee Stadium, with seven home runs allowed, and Santana ranked seventh among all starting pitchers in fly ball percentage in 2017.
In August of 2015, Santana referred to Yankee Stadium’s dimensions as a joke, and on Monday, he reiterated his view of the place: “The ballpark is small, the ball carries. Every fly ball is going to be home run or off the way.”
But Santana’s easy confidence seems unaffected by the history.
“How many games have I pitched here?” he asked a reporter.
“How many have I won?” he asked.
“So tomorrow is going to be one,” he said, smiling.
One thing to watch: In the last weeks of the regular season, Santana has shown the ability to raise his velocity into the mid-90s -- as high as 96 mph -- as he works to finish off hitters.
Gary Sanchez vs. a ball in the dirt in a key spot: On Monday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi related a conversation he had with coach Tony Pena about the work of Sanchez behind the plate this year: “Sometimes we focus on the one ball he misses and not the 10 balls he blocks,” Girardi said, following that recitation of all the things that Sanchez does well defensively.
The Yankees’ manager seemed to be spinning a little bit, maybe to prop up the perception of the defense of the premier power-hitting catcher in baseball. Sanchez is an offensive monster relative to others at his position, and he has powerful throwing arm. He also had a tendency to let balls get through him this year, sometimes in key spots, an issue that festered to the degree that Girardi benched him and challenged him to work.
Sanchez had 16 passed balls this year, a remarkable number for a catcher who doesn’t team with a knuckleball pitcher, and the 53 wild pitches charged to his pitchers when Sanchez was behind the plate were the most in the AL. The damage report: runners took 69 bases on wild pitches and passed balls in the 104 games Sanchez was behind the plate.
On Tuesday night, the Yankees will face a great baserunning team: Minnesota ranked No. 1 in MLB this year in this FanGraphs baserunning efficiency metric.
Byron Buxton vs. the wide-open spaces of Yankee Stadium in center field and left-center: Buxton’s name is now commonly raised in the debate about the game’s best center fielder, with those of Kevin Kiermaier, Billy Hamilton and Jackie Bradley Jr. Buxton led all center fielders in defensive runs saved this season with 24, and he is fully capable of ending a rally by running down a ball in the gap.
The strike zone of plate umpire Alfonso Marquez vs. Jason Castro’s framing ability: Dallas Keuchel shut down the Yankees in the AL wild-card game in 2015 partly because his catcher, Castro, did excellent work in framing pitches at the edge of the strike zone. Castro will be behind the plate for another wild-card game on Tuesday, catching Santana, and Castro mentioned in conversation Monday afternoon that some teammates had asked him what the wild-card game is like.
The conditions may be right for Castro to have another good night of presentation. Santana has good command and walked only 61 batters in 211⅓ innings during the regular season, and he likes to pitch inside, as Molitor said, to make hitters uncomfortable, to keep them off-balance.
Marquez will be the plate umpire, and he is known as a hitters’ ump, calling a smaller zone. But statistics indicate that he’ll call a ball on inside pitches to right-handed batters more often than other umpires, but less often than he does when a left-handed hitter is at the plate. Marquez has been behind the plate for nine of Santana’s starts, and the right-hander has a 3.39 ERA in those innings.
Santana will probably need any advantage that Castro can provide.
Key National League wild-card matchups
Zack Greinke vs. his recent slump: This will be the 10th postseason start for Greinke, and the soon-to-be 34-year-old right-hander is coming off another strong season. His past two starts, however, have been among his worst. He started against the Marlins with an extra day of rest on Sept. 22 and surrendered nine hits, eight runs and three homers in four innings. He got a week off before his next start, on Friday, and struggled again, allowing six hits and two walks over four innings.
Was this a case of a veteran pitcher pacing himself in preparation for October, with the Diamondbacks locked into the wild-card game? Or was this an older starter with more than 2,500 innings in his career somewhat tired at the end of a long season? His velocity was down slightly in his last starts, but was that more about a lack of adrenaline?
We’ll see. By the way: The Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez has a lot of success against Greinke, with five homers among 14 hits in 42 at-bats. Neither Charlie Blackmon nor Nolan Arenado has a homer against Greinke, in 49 and 47 at-bats, respectively.
Bud Black vs. the incredible force that is J.D. Martinez: In August and September, Martinez mashed enough to actually inject himself into the chatter about the NL MVP race despite playing only two months for the Diamondbacks. Martinez clubbed 29 homers in 62 games with Arizona, and in September he had 16 homers in 24 games while batting .404.
He’s so dangerous right now that it will be interesting to see if Black chooses to simply bypass Martinez in a big spot.
Paul Goldschmidt vs. whatever ails him (and Jon Gray): He has been incredibly consistent in his career, a steady source of hits and power and runs, and at the All-Star break he appeared to be a runaway favorite to win the NL MVP Award. But Goldschmidt has been bothered by an elbow problem, the details of which the Diamondbacks have not wholly revealed. Goldschmidt sat out some games down the stretch and when he was in the lineup, he wasn’t himself -- Goldschmidt batted only .175 with three homers in 80 at-bats, with a .569 OPS in September.
Baseball lore is filled with examples of players stepping up and finding a way to succeed through injuries, like Kirk Gibson in 1988, and Goldschmidt will have that opportunity now. He also will have to try to do damage against a young pitcher who has beaten him in the past -- he is 0-for-11 with five strikeouts and one walk in his career while facing Gray.
Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic writes here about Paul Goldschmidt’s recent struggles.
Then there is the matter of Rodney and the Diamondbacks. Rodney is the Arizona closer, and he posted an ERA of 4.23 during the season, with 39 saves in 45 chances. In a year in which record-setting home run numbers piled up all over the place, Rodney allowed just three homers in 55 ⅓ innings, and that’s good. The current Colorado hitters have 53 at-bats against Rodney and have no homers, a remarkable statistic given the venues where most of those at-bats have taken place.
He also allowed 26 walks in 55 ⅓ innings in 2017. His stubborn habit of refusing to give in to hitters is in keeping with some of the greatest closers of all time, but it also means that Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo could have some tense moments in the wild-card game if Rodney falls behind some great Colorado hitters who can mash.
The Diamondbacks vs. their shortstop depth: Nobody would have imagined coming into this month that Arizona would have had to reach so far for shortstop help, but Nick Ahmed got hurt, and Chris Owings got hurt. Ketel Marte has filled in at the spot since early August, and has played well effectively, batting .260 and playing good defense. But in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game, he had to leave the game with left hamstring tightness on this play.
The Diamondbacks continue to say that Marte is going to be OK, and that what happened wasn’t a major injury. Just in case Owings was scheduled to play instructional-league games Monday and again Tuesday. If Marte’s hamstring issue becomes more of a concern than the team initially believes -- like Max Scherzer’s situation -- then the D-Backs can force Owings back into action.