SportsPulse: Two best words in baseball: Game 163. And for the first time ever we have two of them. MLB insider Bob Nightengale breaks down who has the advantage in each.
The Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, each with lopsided victories Sunday, will play a tiebreaker game Monday to determine the winner of the NL Central. The winner gets home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, and won’t have to play again until Thursday.
This year marks the first time in baseball history two divisions will be determined by one-game playoff. And it’s the first time since MLB went to a two-wild card format in 2012 that a division winner was determined by playoff.
Breaking down the one-game playoff between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs:
Brewers (TBA) vs. Cubs (Jose Quintana 13-11, 4.09 ERA), 1:05 ET, ESPN. The winner will play host to the wild-card game winner in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday. The loser plays host to either the Dodgers or Rockies in Tuesday’s NL wild card game.
It’s familiar dominance vs. the unknown. And there’s no telling who might have the edge.
In starting Quintana, the Cubs are handing the ball to a lefty who’s posted a 2.17 ERA over 37 1/3 innings against the Brewers this season. Most notably, he’s been the starting pitcher in three of the six shutouts Chicago posted against them this season. At Wrigley Field this season, Quintana has been a little less sharp, producing a 4.28 ERA and giving up 15 homers, compared to 3.94 and 10 on the road.
As for the Brewers? Perhaps it was just gamesmanship that manager Craig Counsell opted not to name his starting pitcher on Sunday. Jhoulys Chacin, who made an NL-high 34 starts, won 15 games and posted a 3.56 ERA, is on turn to pitch. He’d make a fine choice.
But the one-game playoff format is ripe for experimentation, and Counsell has significant options. In a crucial game against St. Louis last week, Counsell went the “extreme opener” route, starting lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who retired Matt Carpenter and then hit the showers.
A parade of eight more relievers followed and the Brewers gutted out a 6-4 win. It should be noted that Monday’s game is a regular season game and both teams will have all the spoils of the expanded September roster.
What’s more, Counsell was able to avoid his three top relievers in Sunday’s 11-0 rout of the Detroit Tigers to keep their division title hopes alive. Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel are rested and ready, Hader presumably for a two-inning stint. Looking at the playoff big picture, Counsell could roll the dice, hold Chacin back for a potential NLDS Game 1 start and see if a conga line of fireballers can win this one.
The risk-reward of that strategy is significant, however: Burn up the bullpen Monday and lose, and suddenly you’re faced with a one-game wild card knockout game with a compromised staff.
Keep an eye on…
Christian Yelich. Who else? He somehow turned a tight NL MVP race into a runaway in just one week, thanks to stretches like this:
In his final 11 games, Yelich produced a .462/.611/1.154 line, with six homers and 20 RBI while twice hitting for the cycle. Yelich is so hot that it’s safe to say he affects the Cubs’ plans once they’ve confirmed he didn’t miss the bus down from Milwaukee.
Close and late
You’re up to date on the Brewers’ pitching options as the game progresses; the Cubs’ options are, shall we say, not so rosy. Closer Brandon Morrow is out for the year, his top replacement, Pedro Strop, is not yet recovered from a hamstring injury and manager Joe Maddon’s circle of trust is far less defined than he’d prefer it be this time of year.
The Cubs needed nine pitchers to secure a 10-5 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and the performances were uneven. Carl Edwards Jr. induced a double-play ball, but also allowed two inherited runners to score. July acquisition Brandon Kintzler got two outs but gave up three hits.
In short? Quintana, who has pitched just five innings in six of his last nine starts, might need to go long to limit the Cubs’ late-inning liability.
In the end
It’s been a weird year for the Cubs, beset by pitching woes early and injuries often, and then a September slump that came amid a stretch of 30 consecutive days without a game scheduled. At times it felt like they were ripe to be run down and thanks to a 19-7 September, the Brewers did just that.
Milwaukee is hot, aligned well for Monday and, possibly, just plain better than the Cubs. Not to worry: There’s at least a 50% chance these teams meet again in the Division Series. The feeling here is Game 1 of that NLDS would come at Miller Park.
Brewers 6, Cubs 2.