Rockies vs. Cubs: Watch NL Wild Card Game 2018, things to know, prediction

After Monday’s historic pair of divisional tiebreakers, we’re now set with the final National League playoff field. The Braves will head to L.A. to face the Dodgers while the Brewers await the winner of the RockiesCubs bout in Wrigley Field. It’ll take place at 8 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN. Here’s how to watch:

NL Wild Card Game: Rockies (91-72) at Cubs (95-68)

  • Date: Tuesday, Oct. 2
  • Time: 8 p.m. ET
  • Location: Wrigley Field in Chicago
  • TV channel: ESPN
  • Streaming: WatchESPN 
  • Live statsGameTracker
  • Picks: Check SportsLine’s MLB pick sheet for all your daily odds.

The season series was completely even

Season series aren’t indicative of how the postseason is going to go and there are a litany of examples. With a one-gamer it’s particularly irrelevant. 

Why even bring it up, then, Matt?

Because this is a really fun fact. Not only did the Rockies and Cubs each win three of the six games between the two this season, but they scored an identical number of runs in the six games. It’s even more fun than that, too! The series was 3-3 and the runs scored tally was 33-33. 

Other than that, though, who cares? The last time the two teams faced each other was May 2. Next! 

Rockies have had it worse, travel-wise

After a loss in Arizona on Sept. 19, the Cubs had a day off. They haven’t left Chicago since. The only road games came on the South Side against the White Sox. They then played eight games at home and get to stay put again for Tuesday. 

The Rockies, meantime, had to go from home to Los Angeles and now are flying to Chicago and will have to play without a day off for travel. It happens a lot during the course of the regular season, so they can handle it. Just saying the Cubs have had a lot more home cookin’ leading up to the bout. 

The Cubs have their man on the mound

Jon Lester is lined up for the start on normal rest. The Cubs don’t really have an ace that separates from the pack — you could argue Kyle Hendricks or even Cole Hamels should be the top choice in a must-win game — but Lester has the big-game history required here and comes off a very good regular season. 

In 32 starts, he was 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 149 strikeouts in 181 2/3 innings. 

The All-Star went through a rough patch in the middle of the season, posting an 8.01 ERA in eight starts from July 1 through Aug. 11. On that latter date, it was a particularly disastrous start. He coughed up nine runs (eight earned) on 10 hits in just 3 2/3 innings. He gave up three home runs. His ERA had gone from a low point of 2.10 all the way up to 3.89. 

Since then, though, he’s been mostly good but even great in some outings. He’s pitched to a 1.71 ERA in his last eight starts while the Cubs have won seven of those games. Last time out, he gutted through six scoreless innings without his best stuff (four walks, three strikeouts). Four times in his last eight starts, he’s gotten through at least six innings without allowing a run. 

As noted with the history comment, Lester rises to the occasion in October most of the time. In 148 career postseason innings, he has a 2.55 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. In 2016-17 with the Cubs, he’s worked 50 innings and has a 1.98 ERA. 

So do the Rockies, but …

All indications are that the Rockies will be pitching lefty Kyle Freeland, who just finished one of the best pitching seasons in Rockies history and is almost criminally underrated. He finished the season 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA (165 ERA+), 1.25 WHIP and 173 strikeouts in 202 1/3 innings. This coming after a bad April, too. In fact, in Freeland’s last 20 starts, he had a 2.32 ERA and the Rockies won 16 of those 20 starts. Since the beginning of July, he’s made 17 starts and the Rockies have won 15 of them. It’s become damn near automatic. 

Freeland starts, Rockies win. Clockwork. 

“But Matt, why is there a ‘but’ above?”

Two things: 

  1. Freeland is on short rest. He pitched on Friday, so it’s three days’ rest. He hasn’t made a start on short rest all season. In fact, he hasn’t done short rest between starts in his entire big-league career. Last season, he made a start on three days’ rest after pitching in relief, but he only threw 10 pitches in said relief outing. He still gave up two runs on five hits in three innings in that start, though. It isn’t that we know Freeland can’t pitch well on short rest. He probably can. We just don’t know. It’s at least a slight risk. 
  2. Freeland has actually been much better at home. How’s this for a backward split? One would think getting Freeland out of Coors Field would be a, forgive me, Freeing experience. Only he’s 10-2 with a 2.40 ERA in Coors and 7-5 with a 3.23 ERA on the road. Note that it’s still good, but it would’ve been better the Rockies to have this one at home.

Cubs bullpen limps in

Closer Brandon Morrow is out for the season. Replacement closer Pedro Strop might not be available due to his hamstring injury and if he is, he hasn’t pitched in game action Sept. 13. Carl Edwards Jr. had a 5.14 ERA with 12 walks in 11 outings (seven innings) in September. Steve Cishek has a 4.76 ERA with eight walks and three hit batsmen in his last 11 1/3 innings. Justin Wilson coughed up three hits and two runs in 2/3 of an inning on Sept. 26 and allowed a single and double before departing on Monday. Brandon Kintlzer has been terrible with the Cubs. 

Who can Joe Maddon count on? 

Well, Jesse Chavez has been amazing, but he just threw two innings on Monday. Jorge De La Rosa has a 1.29 ERA and 1.05 WHIP since joining the Cubs. Mike Montgomery’s stuff will probably play better out of the bullpen than in the rotation, but he just started on Sunday. 

More than likely, the Cubs need Lester to get through seven here or else they are going to have to face some pretty scary relief choices. 

Rockies bullpen in better shape 

The Rockies best relievers and how they look: 

  • Closer Wade Davis went through a bad stretch in late July through early August, but he’s only allowed one run in his last 18 outings. In that span, he has 25 strikeouts and only two walks. He hasn’t pitched since Friday, so he’s well rested. 
  • Setup man Adam Ottavino did close the season on a sour note (7.04 ERA in last 7 2/3 innings), but he’s also well rested, having last worked Friday as well. He’s talented enough to right the ship. 
  • Right-hander Scott Oberg has been excellent this season (2.48 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) and only had one slip up in September. He did pitch Monday, but only threw eight pitches. He’s fine to go back-to-back since he had two days off before Monday. 
  • Seung-Hwan Oh has had a very good season and has gone seven straight scoreless outings. He pitched Sunday, but it was only five pitches and he got Monday off. 

Three of the Rockies four best relievers are going really well right now and all four of them are available to shoulder a decent-sized burden in the Wild Card Game. It’s in much better shape than the Cubs’ relief corps. 

The Cubs’ boom-or-bust offense

The Cubs show well in several important offensive categories and have a few players with good offensive numbers, but they are pretty extreme. In the last eight games, the Cubs scored one run or fewer four times. In the other games, they scored 7, 3, 8 and 10 runs. The previous week, you can find a stretch of 1, 1, 5, 9, 0, 4, 8, 6 runs, respectively. They’ve been doing this pretty much all season, but notably in the second half. 

On the season, the Cubs scored zero or one run 38 times. They scored two runs 16 times. How about seven or more runs? 49 times! That’s 103 games with 0-2 runs or 7-plus runs. Generally speaking, with a league average of 4.45 runs per game, one would expect most games to fall in the 3-6 range, but the Cubs only fit in there 60 times compared to 103 outside it. 

Basically, if it gets through the fourth inning and the Cubs haven’t mounted a rally yet, it’s probably one of those games. If they put up a crooked number early, it’s watch out Rockies time. 

Rockies can’t hit on road

Coors Field has long had a negative effect on the Rockies when they hit the road. It’s easy to see why. Spacious ballpark with the ball carrying a lot more than other places tends to cause hitters to work a certain way. Then they leave and most ballparks (like Wrigley Field) don’t have nearly as much room to find holes in the defense. If the wind is blowing in at Wrigley Tuesday night, the carry is gone. 

Prior to Monday’s game in Dodger Stadium, the Rockies had hit .226/.295/.370 on the road compared to .287/.350/.503 at home. That’s as drastic as it gets. Then they were no-hit into the sixth inning and didn’t score until two harmless solo shots in the ninth inning. 

Going by OPS+, the only hitters who qualified for the batting title this year who were above-average were Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon. David Dahl is in a good groove right now and must be mentioned, but still, it’s not a scary offense on the road. 

Bet on low-scoring affair

Hopefully you’ve already seen where we were headed. All the circumstances here point to a low-scoring game Tuesday night. Factors that could swing the game? 

  • Freeland on short rest, as the Cubs could jump on him early if he isn’t sharp.
  • Lester’s pitch count going high early, as the Cubs’ bullpen isn’t deep at all. 
  • A tie game late being decided by the bullpens. 

Most importantly: 

  • The wackiness of a one-game do-or-die game. Anything is on the table. Even if the smart money says it’ll be low scoring, it could just as easily turn into a slugfest. 

Let’s do it. 

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