The wild-card game could be either the start of an epic journey through October — or it could be a quick death.
We’ve seen it happen both ways: A decent team wins the wild-card game, gets hot and all of a sudden looks like an October juggernaut. Or a team with some potential gets into the wild-card game and falls flat on its face.
Looking at this year’s crop of teams, both possibilities are there. In the American League, it’s most likely the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are playing for a chance to get clobbered by the Houston Astros, but we’ve seen big October upsets from a wild-card team before. In the National League, both the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals have been potent in September and could be a force in October.
All four teams just need to get through one game first — and history has shown it’s one of the more exciting games of the year. The Nats and Brewers play Tuesday at 8:08 p.m. ET on TBS, and the Rays and A’s play Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. on ESPN.
Who’s going to make it through? The Yahoo Sports MLB writers did their best to predict the future:
NL wild card: Brewers vs. Nationals
TIM BROWN: On Aug. 22, 35-year-old Max Scherzer returned to the mound after a month spent dealing with various back and shoulder issues and in seven starts since has a 4.74 ERA, which isn’t like him at all. Over the same period, Stephen Strasburg had a 1.76 ERA and Patrick Corbin a 2.98 ERA. And, yet, Scherzer gets the start here because he’s Scherzer, the snorting, snarling, house-afire gamer who struck out 10 Brewers in six innings back in May. The Brewers are good at pitching chaos, and starter Brandon Woodruff has been untouchable since his own return from injury, but those four innings are the only four innings he’s thrown in 2 ½ months. The Nationals win this one. Pick: Nationals
HANNAH KEYSER: The Nationals have been the second-best team in baseball since June 1 and I'm inclined to think that the first game they play in October will be more reflective of the fact that they've won their past eight games in a row than of their early-season woes. Their weakness is still the bullpen, but with their season on the line — and a day off before they would have to play again — I have a feeling they'll call on competent starters No. 2 or 3 to pick up wherever Max Scherzer leaves off. It's impressive that the Brewers managed to go 20-7 in September despite being literally and figuratively kneecapped by the loss of MVP-candidate Christian Yelich. But they closed out the season getting swept by a team that's 20 games under .500 and suffering the loss of another key player in Lorenzo Cain. This is a better Nationals team than the ones that have seemed cursed in October and so I'm going with them over the club that's potentially missing two of their top four WAR contributors. Pick: Nationals
CHRIS CWIK: Facing Max Scherzer with the season on the line is a terrifying thought, and this could backfire. But if the Brewers can hang in there long enough to get to the Nats' bullpen, Milwaukee has a chance. The Nats' bullpen has been the team's Achilles’ heel all season. Daniel Hudson has helped, but the Nats still have a 5.39 bullpen ERA in the second half. Taking advantage of the Nats' relievers will push the Brewers ahead. Pick: Brewers
LIZ ROSCHER: The Brewers' late-season surge following Christian Yelich's injury makes them such a tempting pick to win the NL wild card, especially since the Brewers and Nationals feel pretty evenly matched. But when you take a step back and look at what the Brewers are dealing with, it's a little tougher to pick them. They're not only missing Yelich, but Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun have both been hurt. Their pitching, while nothing to sneeze at, is still a patchwork quilt of guys you're not sure you can depend on. (Brandon Woodruff and his 3.62 ERA is starting). The Nationals have fewer questions marks and more healthy players. They're sending ace Max Scherzer to the mound, and sluggers Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner are all healthy and expected to play. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, but this feels like a Nationals win. Besides, if the Nationals don't win, how can they continue their streak of never winning a playoff series? Pick: Nationals
MARK TOWNSEND: For the second straight year, the Brewers played their best baseball in September. That's the biggest reason they've made it this far. Unfortunately, several late-season injuries, including a season-ender for 2018 MVP Christian Yelich, finally started catching up to them in the final weekend and perhaps cost them a chance to win the NL Central. Now they'll have to face a Nationals squad that will be at home and will have all three aces — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — available. I don't like Milwaukee's odds. Pick: Nationals
MATT EHALT: This matchup is a clash of styles with the Nationals relying on dominant starting pitching and the Brewers using their resourcefulness to record 27 outs. It's well known that the Nationals have yet to win a postseason series, and it feels like this is their best chance. The Brewers aren't at full strength with Christian Yelich sidelined, and Patrick Corbin could be used in relief. While this Brewers run has been magical, the Nationals are the better team and have an all-time great on the mound. Pick: Nationals
AL wild card: Rays vs. A’s
TIM BROWN: This would appear to be the fairest of fights, starting with the fact the Rays won 48 road games (only the Minnesota Twins won more), and the A’s won 52 home games (bested by the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.) Both pitched better than they hit. The A’s are the superior defensive team. They’d both like to bulldoze their ballparks. And so the game is a crapshoot, as it should be. The lean here is toward veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who starts for the Rays following the best season of his 12-year career. In two starts this season against the A’s, Morton allowed a run in 13 ⅓ innings. That’ll play. Pick: Rays.
HANNAH KEYSER: In a matchup of two teams that have found success through unconventional bullpen management, I'm going to give the edge to the starter having the best year of his career. At 35, Charlie Morton has a 30 percent strikeout rate, a 146 ERA+, and, crucially this year in particular, the fewest home runs allowed per nine innings in all of baseball. That'll come in handy since the Rays are not great at scoring runs. Even if Morton stumbles, Tampa Bay's bullpen is perhaps the deepest and most versatile in baseball, a clear edge over Oakland in a game where all hands will be on deck. All the Rays need to do is get a lead, and I'm betting Nick Anderson, Emilio Pagan and the rest of the relievers will lock it down. Pick: Rays
CHRIS CWIK: In a battle of two teams that are allergic to starting pitching, give me the squad with the better offense. It's close, but that was the Athletics this season. The team's 107 wRC+ was slightly better than the Rays' mark of 103. On top of that, the A's boast the best defense in baseball if you believe the advanced metrics. Oakland wins in a close one that features at least two web gems from Matt Chapman. Pick: A’s
LIZ ROSCHER: Both the Rays and Athletics are small-market budget teams that look eerily similar save for their names and locations. Neither stadium is a joy to play in. Both rosters were built not for flash but productivity. Neither team has a single everyday player hitting over .300. The Rays do have the edge in pitching, but tapping Charlie Morton to start the wild-card game didn't feel like enough to give them an edge. I just couldn't decide, so in the end I flipped an actual coin. Heads Athletics, tails Rays. It landed heads, so I'm picking the Athletics. If I'm wrong, blame the coin — that's what I'll be doing. Pick: A’s
MARK TOWNSEND: This has instant classic written all over it. Two small-market teams that always find a way to overcome the odds, battling for one precious spot in the playoffs. The Rays will have the pitching advantage, while the A's should have the edge with the bats. I also think they'll play with an extra edge after losing in the wild-card game last season against the Yankees. There's unfinished business for this A's squad, and they'll take the first step toward finishing it Wednesday. Pick: Athletics
MATT EHALT: If any team is going to be the spoiler in the American League, it seems it will be the Athletics. Oakland is back in this game for the second straight year, and perhaps last year's experience will help. The Athletics have a well-rounded roster and their offense can be quite formidable. It should help that they are hosting the game this time around. The pitching edge in this game goes to the Rays, but it just seems a very tall task for the Rays to win a game at The Coliseum, where the A's are 52-29. Pick: Athletics
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