Playing Pepper: 2019 Wild Card Games

The Oakland A's are playing in the AL Wild Card Game Wednesday - Keith Allison via flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Playing Pepper is a feature on BtB where members of the staff provide quick hit insight on the postseason. In this edition, the team sizes up the 2019 Wild Card Games.

Milwaukee Brewers vs. Washington Nationals

What gives you hope in a one-game playoff for each team?

Dan Federico: As more of a general thought for all Wild Card games, it comes down to three words: anything can happen. When you watch the usual five or seven game series, more often than not the better team is going to come out on top. But when it’s a one game winner take all, the uncertainty leads to an excitement in the ballpark that, in my opinion, is unlike anything else is baseball. It’s been a fantastic change of pace for the sport that has brought an added level of intrigue to the game.

Jason Kates: Keeping it plain and simple with two words: Max Scherzer. For the Washington Nationals ace, it’s been an odd year with back and shoulder injuries, but the biggest game of the season rests on his arm as usual. He’s made four postseason appearances (three starts) during his time in DC, but has yet to pick up a victory in the playoffs, so we’ll see if this is the game Scherzer does it. On the other hand, we have the Brewers and their “do it for our fallen leader” mantra to lean on with the unfortunate injury to Christian Yelich. Last year, they faced the Cubs in a one-game tiebreaker (albeit it was only to determine playoff seeding) and won in Chicago, so having that experience when the stakes are high brings confidence to the guys in the clubhouse.

Jonathan Powell: For the Brewers, trends. Not only have they hit the afterburners during the last month of the season, but get back two key pieces on the mound: Brent Suter and Brandon Woodruff, the former just named the NL Reliever of the Month and the latter in the midst of breakout season, despite just returning from injury. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that skipper Craig Counsell has learned to deploy his rag-tag crew of arms like a true arsenal since rosters expanded, leading to the best September ERA in all of baseball with clear promise of more.

For the Nationals, well-roundedness. Between Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Victor Robles, and everyone in between, Washington’s lineup can really do it all from nearly any spot. Plus, you know, the whole Max Scherzer thing.

Khurram Kalim: Mostly, the structure of the one-game playoff. For one night, and only for this one night, you have to be better than your opponent. Ask any Wild Card Game team, any real Wild Card Game team. It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile—winning’s winning.

Brent Sirvio: This was supposed to be the exact same team that got them there in 2018. And that didn’t happen. Experience is less a factor than it would have been with a healthy Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas and, of course, Christian Yelich. Instead, it’s the rag tag bunch of San Antonio Missions, led by Cory Spangenberg, Keston Hiura, Trent Grisham. It’s Yasmani Grandal, Eric Thames, Ben Gamel.

And so far, that’s made the road a little rough, but not impassable. The resiliency of this club is their best asset, because the talent is in triage. They’re going to be in survive and advance mode, and that’s where they’ve lived and thrived all month.

Washington looked dead early on this season, Dave Martinez‘ job was in jeopardy, the naysayers were asking about life without Harper, some thought it was time to blow the club up and build around Juan Soto and Victor Robles. They went from 12 games below .500 to 24 above at one point in September, mostly powered by an MVP-caliber Anthony Rendon and lights out pitching.

The team is older than you think, and a $201MM payroll probably should have yielded more than a series of first-round exits. If they’re going to break through, this is where they’re going to have to do it. You have to think that the talent and drive to dispel the rumors are going to make this a very motivated club Tuesday night.

What worries you about either team in the Wild Card Game?

DF: On the NL side of things, the biggest worry about the Nationals is their ability to win the big game. Since 2012, the organization has had the best record in their league twice while winning the East four times, but they’ve yet to get past the divisional round. For the Brewers, it’ll be overcoming Washington’s pitching in the one game playoff. Max Scherzer is arguably the best starting pitcher of this decade, and although the Nationals’ bullpen is one of the worst in baseball, it’s believed that both Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin will be available in relief.

JK: As Dan and everyone else will likely allude to, the inability to get out of the first round in the past will always be a huge concern for the Nationals, regardless of who’s on the roster. If the Washington bullpen has to called on, Nats fans will wanna buckle up, because it could get bumpy given the bullpen troubles that have been highlighted repeatedly throughout the season. This leads me to the Brewers, who if they don’t get to the bullpen, that means Scherzer is putting on a good performance, which would be bad news for Milwaukee.

JP: For the Nationals, trends. They’re notorious for blowing harder than the wind in October and what’s worse is that Max Scherzer has been struggling all September. Even with ungodly ratios (43:6 K/BB in 29.2IP), he’s been giving up a ton of runs (5.16 ERA) and his reputation and results haven’t exactly translated into the postseason.

Unfortunately, the Brewers have concerns that extend two-fold. Despite their blistering pace as of late, this lineup is prone to goose eggs—and injury, as evidenced by their entire starting outfield. Without Yelich, there’s nowhere near the guarantee that someone can kick-start the offense should Scherzer hit his stride. It’s the exact same scenario that kept them from the World Series just last year—and this time, it’s without their best player. Plus, despite outstanding September numbers, there is undoubted uncertainty in the pitching ranks beyond Woodruff and Hader, as evidenced by, you know, the rest of the season (4.40 ERA, 16th in MLB—and that’s AFTER a red-hot September).

KK: It feels like the Nationals and the Brewers are going to funhouse mirror each other strategically, with Washington looking for seven-strong and two-decent, and Milwaukee hoping for the inverse. I trust Brandon Woodruff with one or two turns through the order more than I trust the Nats’ bullpen, which finished the season last or near it in many positive team pen stats, and tops or near it in many negative team pen stats, traditional and advanced. The hope is that in the one-game, the bullpen will be bolstered by having Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin available to eat outs.

Before getting to that point, there’s Max Scherzer, who gets the ball with a week’s rest. Scherzer, one of the best pitchers of this century, had a very un-Scherzer-like last two months of the season after injury issues. An ace’s ace is the ultimate talisman in a winner-take-all scenario—it reminds me of the 2016 Wild Card Game, when the name ‘Bumgarner’ became a hierogram. But in seven August and September starts, Scherzer hasn’t been 2016 Bumgarner, let alone himself. He pitched into the 7th inning just once, gave up four or more earned runs three times, and surrendered nearly as many home runs (eight) as he did in his previous 20 starts (10).

If it seems like I’m stressing over pitching despite the presence of great bats on both rosters even with MVP Christian Yelich out, it’s because of the outsize impact pitching has on a game-by-game basis. This will be Wild Card Game number 15: in the previous 14, the losing team was blanked five times and held to two runs or less 10 times.

We could see a 9-8 banger, but we’re more likely to see a dominant starter or a dominant bullpen win the night.

BS: The Brewers play their best ball when they’re working counts and consistently applying pressure to pitchers. That hasn’t happened much this season. They can’t give away outs to one of the preeminent pitchers of his generation. Survive Scherzer, and you take your chances with a rusty Strasburg and hope to dig into that bullpen. Can they make Scherzer work for his outs?

The Nationals, incidentally, have all the pressure in this one. They’re the big-spending ballclub. They’re a veteran club on the brink with Rendon’s likely departure and a league-wide implicit mandate to pare back payroll. They were the ones who were supposed to be here, whereas the Brewers had to put together a September for the ages to even get to this point. This is a historically snake-bitten franchise, and urban legends become all too real in October baseball.

Who ya got?

DF: It’s finally time for the Nationals to win a big game. Because their top three starters are all ready to go, I expect Washington to shut down the Brewers’ offense, setting up a showdown against the almighty Los Angeles Dodgers.

JK: The winner of this gets the privilege of losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers, fun! I’m going with the home team in this one, including a big game for Juan Soto.

JP: My head says the Nationals. My heart says the Brewers. The rest of me is laying in wait for the backlash. I’ll say the Brewers because I’m a homer-masochist.

KK: As a Mets fan, I sometimes wonder: if I didn’t grow up in an era of oppressive Braves divisional dominance, would I be more comfortable adopting an NL East team as my vehicle of vicarious October living? I’d like to think of my baseball identity as an address, where each zoom out reveals more kinfolk. Mets, then NL East, then NL. I’d like to, but I don’t.

And yet, against my bitter hatred and what honestly feels like better judgment, I’m going Nationals. The Brewers were hot to get here, their bullpen recovered nicely and had a league-leading September, and that’s the piece of their makeup that makes them so dangerous in October. It’s not like they haven’t had to deal with potent lineups like Washington’s, but I think the Nats will get enough runs in innings that aren’t preloaded with automatic outs, and some reliever exposure limiting will help Scherzer and the repurposed starters protect an early lead. Nationals 5 – Brewers 1

BS: I don’t like this match-up one bit. The Brewers are injured, they just laid a turd last weekend in Denver, they’re missing the MVP and trotting out a talented, but freshly reinstated Brandon Woodruff. But I also don’t like Martinez’ management, Scherzer has looked a little too human this month and conventional wisdom has a way of disappearing in the fall. Through my teeth, I’m going with the Brewers for a 2018 NLCS grudge match with the Dodgers.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Oakland Athletics

What gives you hope in a one-game playoff for each team?

DF: See above.

JK: From Tampa’s standpoint, it’s Morton and the success he’s had versus the A’s already this season. In two starts against Oakland, the 35-year-old pitcher gave up just one earned run on six hits, so manager Kevin Cash will be hoping for more of the same on Wednesday. The A’s, despite this lack of success, know anything can happen in a one-game-playoff. They”ll surely be riding the home crowd, and will look to jump out ahead early.

JP: The Rays have proven more than anyone was prepared to give them credit for. Even with significant injuries and uncertain trades, a surprisingly number of players have surfaced in some meaningful capacity throughout the season and have carried them with strange consistency into their current position. They have more than enough talent, especially with Morton on the mound, but even if he doesn’t show up, they still have baseball’s best bullpen to lean on.

The A’s are perennial underdogs and carry their mark with pride. Despite big names, they’ve done everything to round out their roster with enough to push past the rest of the mid-upper AL tiers, and that’s saying something.

BS: It’s one game. Charlie Morton with the ball. If he can deliver the goods, there is a, ahem, Ray of hope.

The A’s have done this before, just not at home. A raucous home crowd, a solid hitting lineup, this team should be confident with Marcus Semien, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson and company having been battle-tested and playing at an elite level for the better part of four months. The only reason they’re playing here is because they share a division with the Astros. It’s a good, experienced club.

What worries you about either team in the Wild Card Game?

DF: For the A’s, it’s going against the highly effective and underrated ace of the Rays’ staff, Charlie Morton. The 35-year-old not only dazzled with a 3.05 ERA and .215 OBA in 33 starts this season but also allowed just one earned run and six hits over two starts (13.1 innings) against Oakland in 2019. When it comes to the Rays, home field advantage is just that – an advantage. And when it comes to RingCentral Coliseum, it’s one of the most well-known ballparks that supports a home team. The crowd will be raucous in the Athletics’ favor, and for one game, that may be tough to overcome.

JK: Simple: If it’s much of the same for the A’s against Morton, they’re in trouble. For the Rays, if they can’t silence the Oakland crowd and trail in the first couple of innings, it could prove too difficult to overcome.

JP: Despite their surprisingly elite pitching, the Rays still have trouble putting runs on the board, and in a single game play-in, that could make all the difference, even if Morton minimizes the damage.

Oakland has no one to lean on in time of crisis, exemplified by their TBD status for Wednesday. Despite ranking well throughout the season, the A’s pitching still hasn’t escalated to the status of the Rays’, which could spell trouble when a majority of their roster hits for power over average.

BS: The A’s just never seem to put it together in October. Last year, their cuteness bit them straightaway in the ballsac and they were chased out of New York on a rail. This has been happening for the better part of 20 years.

On the other hand, look at this Rays lineup: leading home run hitter is Austin Meadows with 33. Tommy Pham led the team with 155 hits and 33 doubles. This is a light-hitting, decidedly unremarkable lineup with seven guys who struck out 100 or more times this season.

Who ya got?

DF: For this one game playoff, the name of the game will be pitching – and Charlie Morton is the best pitcher on either side. Expect him to ignore the crowd and have a masterful performance, sending the Rays on a trip to Houston to take on his former team.

JK: I hate to be cliché and go with the home teams, but I can’t envision a Rays win. I think the A’s finally get to Morton, and the long ball plays a major role.

JP: Charlie Morton has a ton to prove and behind him is the best bullpen in the league. Against a power-heavy Oakland lineup, it sounds like a recipe for Tampa Bay’s success.

BS: The Athletics have been decidedly unimpressive in recent October baseball history. The Rays feasted on woeful opponents and struggled against quality competition. I think this is Oakland’s best shot to advance in the Wild Card era and believe they will dispatch the Rays.

Dan Federico, Jonathan Powell and Brent Sirvio are co-founders of Bronx to Bushville. Khurram Kalim is a senior writer. Jason Kates is a staff writer.

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