The madness of two Game 163s on the same day and what would make Monday perfect

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·MLB columnist
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CHICAGO – Baseball, in its infinite permutations, births something new every day. Typically it’s minutiae, a blip on the radar unworthy of even a moment’s consideration. Then there are days like Monday, when all the right circumstances align, when the gears clack into place exactly as intended, when the toil of an entire season still wasn’t enough to render judgment.

“Baseball is such a perfect game in some ways,” Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “that it takes 162 not to decide anything.”

A smile spread across Maddon’s face. His Cubs had just dispatched the St. Louis Cardinals, 10-5, in their final game of the season. Thirty-eight minutes earlier, the Milwaukee Brewers had beaten the Detroit Tigers, and 11 minutes before that, the Colorado Rockies had put a merciful end to the Washington Nationals’ season, and 24 minutes prior, the Los Angeles Dodgers had finished punishing the San Francisco Giants, and all of that together meant Monday would be unlike anything baseball ever had seen: a pair of Game 163s on the same day, one that would decide the National League Central champion and another the victor in the NL West.

Only 10 times in history have two teams met in a one-game playoff, and while the stakes of these two games do not match the previous – those were all of the win-or-go-home variety, Monday’s will see the losers play again Tuesday in a do-or-die wild-card game – it’s not as if they’re lacking in gravitas.

October baseball gets a head start with two games featuring division rivals that spent all season nipping at one another’s heels and butting heads, which may be anatomically impossible but in the metaphorical sports world is quite apropos. The Cubs and Brewers were the best teams in an NL defined by parity, booking 95 wins apiece. The Dodgers and Rockies clawed to 91 wins each with finishing kicks that befit playoff teams. And because Major League Baseball changed its tiebreaker rules in 2012 when it added the second wild card, head-to-head records during the regular season no longer suffice to break ties atop a division. Want to avoid the nuisance of the wild card? Decide it on the field one last time.

Anthony Rizzo (left) and Javier Baez react after scoring during the fifth inning of the Cubs’ 10-5 victory over the Cardinals. (AP)
Anthony Rizzo (left) and Javier Baez react after scoring during the fifth inning of the Cubs’ 10-5 victory over the Cardinals. (AP)

It’s a cheeky bit of marketing genius by the league, which understands the allure of a one-game playoff. The tension, the minuscule margin of error, the strategy – it offers the perfect canvas for baseball, the ultimate large-sample game, to revel in the madness of the small samples where scrubs can be heroes and vice versa. Add the delicious twist that two of these teams will be playing again the next day, and a game three-dimensional in its maneuvering already may go full-on 4D.

The settings are already rich enough. The Cubs hosting the Brewers at Wrigley Field at 1 p.m. ET, the Dodgers inviting the Rockies to Dodger Stadium at 4 p.m. ET. What might as well be afternoon playoff baseball on a Monday. It’s the perfect excuse to burn a sick day, if only to see how exactly, Maddon parries Craig Counsell and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts matches up with the Rockies’ Bud Black. They desperately want to win, to avoid the vise of the wild-card game, which the loser of Cubs-Brewers will host. They also know they can’t manage with reckless abandon, lest they lose Monday and leave themselves vulnerable Tuesday.

It’s a delicate balancing act in a game that can be sandpaper rough, and it’s why all four will try to restrain themselves from reaching for the bullpen phone too quickly. It helps that the three starters announced have dealt against their opponents all season and the presumed fourth qualifies there, too. In six starts against Milwaukee, the Cubs’ José Quintana has a 2.17 ERA. The Dodgers’ Walker Buehler has pitched five times against the Rockies with a 2.61 ERA. He’ll face German Márquez, who in three starts has put up a 2.57 ERA against Los Angeles. And while the Brewers wouldn’t commit to a starter – they could go with a relief pitcher in the first inning – the lion’s share of innings is expected to fall on Jhoulys Chacín, he of the 1.59 ERA in four starts against Chicago this season.

To get Quintana last season, the Cubs dealt Eloy Jimenez, one of the best prospects in baseball and by most evaluators’ accounts a can’t-miss star, as well as Dylan Cease, one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues. It was for games like this, against a dangerous Milwaukee lineup buttressed by a bullpen whose three-headed monster put up near-unfathomable numbers in September. In 38 1/3 innings, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress struck out 74 hitters.

It’s why the Cubs on Sunday were wondering whether the Brewers might pocket Chacín for the wild-card game and make Game 163 a bullpen showcase. There’s an argument for that, particularly considering their only other option if Chacín goes Monday would be Chase Anderson, whose last start Milwaukee skipped and who won’t have pitched in two weeks.

The decisions aren’t quite as troublesome for the Dodgers and Rockies. Los Angeles saved Buehler, its dynamic rookie and arguably its best starter, for this game. He has a big ego and even bigger stuff, and he relishes the idea of propelling the Dodgers to hosting Game 1 of the division series against Atlanta. Márquez, meanwhile, is coming off a start in which he struck out the first eight batters he faced. It’s a game rich with intrigue for a multitude of reasons, and the raw ability of the starting pitchers is chief among them.

Getting such an absorbing matchup is just gravy. As is seeing Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich try to use Game 163 to win a Triple Crown – on the home field of the player who leads him in RBIs and could steal MVP votes, Cubs star Javier Báez, no less. And the prospect of Brewers fans braving construction delays on I-94 and invading Wrigleyville? Beautiful. Plus the two best left sides of the infield in the league, the Dodgers’ Justin Turner and Manny Machado and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, vying for supremacy? There are worse things to watch certainly.

That’s all baseball wants. For the parochialism of the regular season to bleed away and cede to great teams facing off for something that matters. It may not matter like Tuesday’s game, but it needn’t. One Game 163 is a gift. Two is a bounty to be savored, appreciated, enjoyed – the infinite permutations arranged just so, perfect in the sort of way that gives October the start it deserves.

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