Sizing Up The MLB Wild-Card Games

The one-and-done battles of the baseball playoffs go the next two nights, with MLB wild-card games on tap for Tuesday and Wednesday. The Bay Area is going on the road, with the Oakland A’s traveling to Kansas City for Tuesday night, and the San Francisco Giants packing up for Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Here’s some thoughts on each game…

Oakland-Kansas City (Tuesday, 8 PM ET, TBS): This is the game Jon Lester was brought to Oakland to pitch. Well, maybe not literally, as the A’s acquired the lefty from Boston when it was hoped that Oakland would be rolling into October as a #1 seed (can I tell how weird it still feels to use the term “1-seed” in baseball?), rather than a barely surviving wild-card.
But Lester, who won Games 1 & 5 of the 2013 World Series for the Red Sox and would have been Series MVP if not for the insane offensive show put on by David Ortiz, was acquired by Oakland precisely because they wanted a money pitcher for a must-win game.
BaseballKansas City counters with James Shields, with no shortage of postseason experience of his own. Shields and Lester were combatants in the great 2008 American League Championship Series played between Boston and Tampa Bay, though they never pitched against each other. Whatever happens tonight in KC, it won’t be because the pitchers can’t handle the stage.
Both of these teams are serious threats on paper to do damage the rest of the way, as the Los Angeles Angels await the winner. Each team has the starting pitching depth to survive having to burn the #1 starter in this game and not be available until Game 3 of the Division Series. But the Royals are playing reasonably well, while the A’s have backtracked into October.
I also think Kansas City is a really good team, and instead of celebrating Ned Yost for his managerial efforts here, we should be asking why he couldn’t make the playoffs last year. Harsh yes, but it’s only the Royals’ nearly thirty years of incompetence prior to this that is avoiding the question being asked.
Las Vegas is split on this game, with each team slotted at (-105) on the betting line, a pick’em game. The Over/Under is a low 6.5, indicating the respect for Lester and Shields. While I think KC is the bigger long-term threat, I think Lester gets it done tonight and Oakland advances.

San Francisco-Pittsburgh (8 PM ET, ESPN): PNC Park in Pittsburgh becomes the first stadium to host consecutive wild-card games. The Pirates are also the only home team to win one of these virtual “play-in” games, when they beat Cincinnati last year, with no small bit of help from the home crowd that appeared to rattle Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto. Other than that, home teams lost the other three wild-card games played in 2012-13.
Oddsmakers are saying another road team wins here, with the Giants as a (-115) favorite. San Francisco is certainly better situated for this game, with Madison Bumgarner ready to roll. Pittsburgh is going with Edinson Volquez, which simply doesn’t make me comfortable. The Pirates have a nice balanced rotation and a good bullpen, but those aren’t attributes that help you in any short series, much less a one-game shot.
But in spite of that, I’m picking Pittsburgh. Part of it some residual loyalty to the town that I lived in for nine years (1999-2007) with a host of great memories. Another part is that I think Andrew McCutcheon can have a monster game and lift his team. That’s a risky thing to pick in baseball, but I’m going to take a shot.
If the Pirates do win, they’re the hottest team in baseball and would get some security of at least having a best-of-five cushion to fall back on, with the Washington Nationals up next. Pittsburgh’s pitching depth could again become more of an asset. If they survive Wednesday, I expect to see the Pirates in the NLCS.
I can’t say the same for San Francisco, whose rotation is too dependent on Bumgarner. Had they won the NL West and were able to pitch the lefty in Games 1 & 5, that would be different. As it is, if the Giants play the Nats, they’ll probably be in a 2-0 series hole by the time their ace gets the ball.