We had two tiebreaker games on Monday. That was fun. The Brewers-Cubs game at Wrigley was a tense affair that the Brewers put away with two runs in the eighth and then too much Josh Hader for the Cubs' taste. The Brewers won their first division title since 2011 thanks to winning their final eight games -- and matching that 2011 team with a franchise-record 96 wins.
The Dodgers then beat the Rockies behind a scoreless effort from rookie Walker Buehler and big home runs from Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy. The win clinched L.A.'s sixth straight NL West title. Let's look ahead for all four teams:
Monday's result: Brewers beat Cubs 3-1
The Brewers seemingly labored over their decision to start Jhoulys Chacin, not naming him until Monday morning, rather than going with some sort of bullpen game. He allowed just one hit and one run in 5⅔ innings, the lone hit an Anthony Rizzo home run in the fifth inning. Corey Knebel pitched a perfect seventh, and Hader threw the final two scoreless innings. The biggest out all day for the Brewers went to Joakim Soria, who struck out Javier Baez swinging on a 3-2 fastball with two runners on to end the sixth, when the game was still tied.
Needless to say, winning this game dramatically increases the Brewers' chances of reaching the World Series. If they had lost, they had no obvious starter for Tuesday, so Chacin's performance not only allowed Craig Counsell to use his best relievers in a victory (and he still had Jeremy Jeffress waiting in reserve), but the Brewers now have two days off before beginning the division series on Thursday. They also earned home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Enjoy, Brewers fans.
Hader had pitched only five times all season on back-to-back days, so Counsell had obviously wanted to avoid a scenario where he had to use Hader on Monday, Tuesday and then maybe again on Thursday. Now the entire bullpen will be in good shape for Thursday. Wade Miley is the likely starter for Game 1 against the wild-card winner, as he started on Saturday (and threw just 53 pitches), so he would be going on regular rest. Counsell won't ride Miley deep into games, but Miley went 5-2 in 16 starts with a 2.57 ERA, allowing just three home runs in 80⅔ innings.
The big difference for Counsell: He's now back to a 25-man roster. He used 12 relievers in September, an average of 5.4 per game. He won't have that roster depth to manipulate, although with two off days if the series goes five games, he still should be able to ride his best relievers.
The good news for the Cubs is they were the only one of the four tiebreaker teams with an obvious option to start the wild-card game: Jon Lester was set up for that game or Game 1 of the division series, depending on Monday's result. We all know Lester's fabulous postseason history: a 2.55 career ERA in 148 innings. He has even started a wild-card game, the infamous 2014 contest between the A's and Royals when Bob Melvin left him in too long and he and the bullpen blew a 7-3 lead in the eighth and ninth innings, with the Royals winning in 12.
Jon Lester will make his 3rd career winner-take-all game start, with his 3rd different team (Cubs, Red Sox, A's).— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 1, 2018
The only other pitcher to start winner-take-all games for 3 or more franchises is Roger Clemens: for the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros.
Given that the Chicago bullpen wasn't stellar on Monday (although the two runs in the eighth came with the help of a couple of hits that weren't exactly lasers), Joe Maddon might be inclined to ride Lester. His best reliever of late, Jesse Chavez, pitched two innings on Monday but threw just 16 pitches (he also warmed up twice on Sunday). Still, nobody was overworked the past two days, so it's more about the quality of the Cubs relievers than any kind of fatigue issue coming into play. (Pedro Strop is hoping to be ready by Thursday if the team reaches the division series.)
The Cubs' offense continues to struggle. Going back to Aug. 31, they've scored zero runs or one run in 10 of 30 games and hit just .236/.301/.362 while averaging 3.93 runs per game. It has kind of been a team-wide thing, with Willson Contreras hitting just .147, backups David Bote and Victor Caratini getting 123 PAs between them and hitting under .200, and Kris Bryant slugging just two home runs in 85 at-bats. Nobody has really been hot, with Baez (.818) and Anthony Rizzo (.810) the only two regulars with an OPS over .800.
Monday's result: Dodgers beat Rockies 5-2
Hello, world. The Dodgers' gambled and bypassed Buehler on Sunday so he would be available for this game if needed. The rookie was brilliant, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowing just a Charlie Blackmon single over 6⅔ scoreless innings and 93 pitches.
The Rockies were probably the team that could least afford to lose the wild-card game. They used German Marquez, who was one of the National League's best starters in the second half, and now they have to start Kyle Freeland in the wild-card game on three days' rest. He has started once in the majors on short rest, but that was on the final day of the 2017 season after having pitched just one-third of an inning in his prior appearance. He'll be tasked with delivering in an unknown situation.
There were two ways for Bud Black to look at this. He could think, "Kyle Freeland gives us the best chance to win on Tuesday, and you don't want to go down without using one of the league's best pitchers." The other way would be to look at things is the long-term view and figure the Rockies' best chances of winning the division series would include starting Freeland in Game 1 and maybe Game 5. Antonio Senzatela has allowed one run in each of his past three starts, so at least he has been on a decent run. Still, I'd go with Freeland, too; you have to win Tuesday and then worry about Thursday. As more of a finesse/sinkerballer type, pitching on short rest might not affect him as much as it would a power guy anyway.
The other concern is that after traveling to Los Angeles, the Rockies now have to head to Chicago, while the Cubs get to sleep in their own beds. The Rockies obviously don't hit well on the road, but their pitching was so good that they did go 44-37 away from Coors Field. All indicators point to a low-scoring wild-card game, unless the wind is blowing out something fierce at Wrigley.
The Dodgers would have been scrambling with a loss, but now they are set up well, with Clayton Kershaw ready to start Game 1 against the Braves on regular rest and Hyun-Jin Ryu set for Game 2. Buehler could come back in Game 3 or Dave Roberts could go with Rich Hill. With Sunday's blowout and Monday's relatively easy win, the bullpen hasn't been stressed and now gets an additional two days of rest.
The Braves are likely to roll out an all-righty group of starters in Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Anibal Sanchez and Julio Teheran. That's good news for Bellinger and Muncy. As we saw with their home runs off Marquez, both punish right-handed pitchers, one reason the Dodgers hit much better against right-handed pitching this season.
The Dodgers were cruising until the ninth inning. With a 5-0 lead, Roberts went to closer Kenley Jansen. I'm not sure why he felt compelled to use Jansen with a five-run lead, other than he wanted Jansen on the mound for the celebration. Well, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story tagged him with back-to-back home runs and now Jansen enters the postseason on a big down note. He finished with a 3.01 ERA, but he also served up 13 home runs -- a scary total for a guy who enters October having to mentally overcome a blown save and a loss in last year's World Series and a regular season in which he was nowhere near as dominant as in 2017.
Can Jansen do the job in October? If he does, the Dodgers might finally win their first World Series since 1988.