NL wild card game preview: Cubs and Rockies look to avoid utter disappointment

Mark TownsendYahoo Sports Contributor

The Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies both entered play on Saturday with an opportunity to clinch their respective divisions. What a difference three days makes. Because after a couple of rough days, both teams will enter Tuesday’s NL wild-card game with their seasons on the line.

It required a series of disappointing events (and strong play from the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers) for both teams to get here, but both must quickly shake it off. They’ll be back on the field a little more than 24 hours after losing division-deciding Game 163s. Now, rather than getting a couple days off, they’re in a do-or-die postseason game.

NL wild-card particulars

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The National League wild-card game will take place Tuesday at 8:09 p.m. ET. It will be broadcast on ESPN. The Cubs earned home-field advantage by virtue of their better regular season record, meaning that Wrigley Field will host the game.

Rockies ace Kyle Freeland faces Cubs ace Jon Lester in the NL wild-card game Tuesday at Wrigley Field. (AP)
Rockies ace Kyle Freeland faces Cubs ace Jon Lester in the NL wild-card game Tuesday at Wrigley Field. (AP)

The pitching matchup

Veteran left-hander Jon Lester (18-6, 3.32 ERA) will take the hill for the Cubs. He’ll be opposed by emerging Rockies ace Kyle Freeland (17-7, 2.85).

The decision appeared to be an easy one for Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. Lester has enjoyed a strong bounce back after being up and down in 2017, and has certainly reclaimed ace status in the Cubs rotation. Lester had been especially good in September, posting a 1.52 ERA and a 4-1 record. In his career against the Rockies, Lester has a 2.25 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 32 innings.

Freeland, 25, is a Denver native with the fate of his hometown team resting on his shoulders. He’s handled that pressure very well during his brief MLB career, but he’s also never faced a situation quite like this either. Where as Lester has made 21 postseason starts, this will be the first for Freeland and his first start on three days rest. Freeland set club records for single-season ERA (2.85) and home ERA (2.40) in 2018 and, like Lester, finished strong with a 9-1 record and 2.49 ERA in last 14 starts.

Cubs-Rockies in 2018

The Cubs and Rockies not only split their six-game series season with three wins apiece, they each scored a total of 33 runs. It’s difficult to read too much into those results though as both series took place before May 3. Both teams have had their share of ups and downs since, but are certainly better teams now.

Rockies will win if

They get to Jon Lester early, forcing Joe Maddon to rely on his taxed bullpen. The last couple days have been rough on Cubs pitching. Maddon needed his bullpen for 20 outs Sunday, and then burned through six more relievers to get 12 outs Monday. Maddon has already said starter Kyle Hendricks will be available, but without closers Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow, who are both injured, they’re still pretty thin.

Cubs will win if

It’s basically the reverse. They desperately need a strong outing from Lester. On the flip side, the Cubs will want to make Freeland work hard, as upping his pitch count would force the hand of Rockies manager Bud Black. The Rockies bullpen is deep with Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg and Jake McGee handling the late innings, but it hasn’t been as sturdy as they hoped after spending $100 million in the offseason.

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