NEW YORK – The reality that his team’s season rode on his right arm made for an unsettling 24 hours for Marcus Stroman.
He felt “miserable” the night before starting the 2016 AL wild-card game, and on the day of the game, that feeling did not dissipate.
“Just pretty much didn't eat at all,” Stroman said. “I was super nervous. People would graffiti the elevator of the building that I lived in saying, 'Let's go Stro,' 'You got this.' From the second I woke up and saw that, I was extremely nervous.”
For Stroman and others who have started the 14 wild-card games in MLB history, the do-or-die game to begin the postseason evokes certain nerves and anxiety. Unlike a Game 7, where the starter is determined by the previous postseason games, most teams line up their starters for a wild-card game. That starter has a clear job: save his team’s season.
And all it takes is one bad pitch to end any dreams of a championship.
For some, those nerves are still memorable years later.
For others, the game goes by in a flash.
But they agree it’s a special honor for a starting pitcher. This year, those honors to go Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals and Brandon Woodruff of the Milwaukee Brewers in Tuesday night’s NL game and then Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL wild-card game Wednesday. The Oakland A’s haven’t yet named their starter.
“It’s not like any regular-season game,” Stroman said. “It's not even like any playoff game, when you know that you kind of have another game in the series. It's not something you can prepare for. It’s something you have to hopefully be able to manage.”
Taking down the Yankees
Dallas Keuchel has a hard time remembering specifics from the 2015 AL wild-card game.
“I remember trying to stay in the moment,” Keuchel said. “It goes by in a blur. I still have to sit down to this day, and it was four years ago, and try to remember exactly what happened because of how quick it goes. Trying to stay in the moment was the biggest thing and not trying to let that Yankee Stadium crowd get too riled up.”
Keuchel, the eventual Cy Young winner, represented the upstart Astros that night in their first of what has become a long stretch of postseason appearances.
The southpaw believes that it helped that the Astros had not yet emerged as legit threats and were considered massive underdogs against the Yankees in the Bronx. It relieved some of the pressure.
“I don’t feel we deserved to be in the wild card. We backed in. We got lucky,” Keuchel said. “It was different because we went to Yankee Stadium and that’s a different culture, different breed and we were very fortunate. We had a chip on our shoulder but at the same time I knew how special it was. That team, we outplayed what we were by a lot. If we just took advantage of the moment, whether we won or lost, I still had some experience to take from the game.”
Keuchel started that game on three days rest and produced a gem, blanking the Yankees over six innings in a 3-0 victory. That game is one reason why he joined the list of Yankees killers.
The southpaw noted that he didn’t feel any more nervous than he does for any regular-season start.
“Being named a wild-card starter is really special because they’re putting a huge burden on you to perform and lead the team into the playoffs,” Keuchel said. “I’ll be forever grateful for being named the starter in the 2015 wild-card game.”
Going toe-to-toe with Madison Bumgarner
When Noah Syndergaard opposed Madison Bumgarner in the 2016 NL wild-card game in 2016, Thor was just a 24-year-old in his sophomore season.
“I was really naive then and that really helped me going into that game, just being a young guy and being throw into the situation,” Syndergaard told Yahoo Sports recently at Citi Field. “At that point, I felt it was a win-win for me, thrown into this situation that is do-or-die for the team. I may have been so nervous going out there that I didn’t realize it.”
Syndergaard had already started games in the NLDS, NLCS and World Series by that point, and even appeared as a reliever in another elimination contest, Game 5 of the NLDS. He compared the wild-card start to that relief outing.
The righty ultimately produced seven scoreless innings in one of the finest pitching matchups in wild-card history, although his team came out on the wrong end of a 3-0 loss.
Bumgarner pitched a shutout in what may be his last great postseason outing.
“It’s a cool feeling because it’s a do-or-die situation,” Syndergaard said. “To get the ball in that scenario with the [other rotation] guys we had in tow, that was an honor. It was a great experience going against Bumgarner, he’s one of the best in those situations. He thrives in those environments and it was really nice to play postseason baseball in October.”
Opening and closing the season
While Stroman is known for being as confident as they come, he admits that he was as nervous for his wild-card outing as any game of his career, which includes a World Baseball Classic final.
The Blue Jays opened that season with Stroman as their starter, and although he had the second-highest ERA on his staff that year, Toronto picked him to oppose Baltimore’s Chris Tillman. The two teams entered the day with identical 89-73 records.
“It’s a one-game, go home or advance [scenario],” said Stroman, now with the Mets. “All the pressure in the world is kind of on you. You just have to do your best at kind of limiting that and going out there and putting that aside and being dominant.”
Stroman managed to rise to the occasion, allowing two runs in six innings while recording a no-decision in Toronto’s 5-2 win in 11 innings. That game is more remembered for former Orioles manager Buck Showalter not bringing in ace reliever Zack Britton.
“Everything else is the same,” Stroman said. “It's just everything else that goes into it. It's the pressure. It's the fan base. It's the organization. It's going to the playoffs. Because you don't really feel like you're actually in the playoffs playing in the wild card. As much as they say that's playoffs, you don't feel like you're in the playoffs until you're in a series. There's pressure, man. But like I said, I love the pressure. I'm someone who handled it pretty well, and hopefully those guys [this year] can too.”
—With reporting from Gerard Gilberto
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