5 Wild-Card Contenders No Team Wants to Face in a 1-Game Playoff
It doesn't get any worse than facing Madison Bumgarner in the one-game wild-card playoff.
Just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates, who ran into the Bumgarner buzzsaw last fall.
"If you don't want to pitch in these games, you probably need to find something else to do," Bumgarner told the Associated Press, via ESPN.com, after authoring a four-hit shutout and punching out 10, as the San Francisco Giants dispatched the Bucs 8-0.
On that night at PNC Park, the Giants set the template for how to be a nightmare matchup in the one-game wild-card clash: Lead with an ace, and mix in some timely hitting. While the Giants didn't need any relievers in that game, it certainly doesn't hurt to have an airtight bullpen.
For the purpose of this list, division leaders were excluded from consideration. That means you won't see a team like the New York Mets, who have all sorts of aces they could throw in the wild-card playoff. But there was room for the team that opposed the Giants last fall.
Why the Chicago Cubs are a nightmare matchup
1. The rise of Jake Arrieta
Jake Arrieta sure picked a great time to step up for the Chicago Cubs. In his last five starts, the right-hander has been devastating, posting a 1.54 ERA while striking out 38 batters in 35 frames.
Arrieta would be an especially strong option for the wild-card playoff if the Cubs end up playing their NL Central foe Pittsburgh Pirates. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Arrieta has owned the Pirates in 2015, allowing just two runs in 21 innings across three starts.
2. The summer surge
Don't look now, but the Cubs are on a roll. Winners of seven of its last eight contests, Chicago is heating up at just the right moment with the postseason right around the corner.
Rookie Kyle Schwarber perfectly embodies the Cubs' strong play as of late. The 22-year-old, who is playing in his first full season as a professional, has been battering the NL. In 19 games since the All-Star break, Schwarber has clocked five homers while hitting .333 with a 1.090 OPS.
Toronto Blue Jays
Why the Toronto Blue Jays are a nightmare matchup
1. David Price
David Price has been downright electric in 2015.
The lefty ace is sporting a 2.45 ERA and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. And that ERA just keeps on dropping. In his debut with the Toronto Blue Jays on August 3, Price racked up 11 K's in eight innings while allowing just one run. In his last 15 outings, the starter has recorded a 2.09 ERA.
As third baseman Josh Donaldson explained, having Price on the mound provides a major lift for the rest of the squad.
“It gives us another level of confidence,” Donaldson said, per David Waldstein of the New York Times. “I think you are going to start seeing us play our better baseball of the year.”
Price's arrival is bad news for the rest of the American League's wild-card hopefuls. But it's great news for the Jays, who have climbed into the second wild-card spot by winning eight of their last 10.
2. The relentless offense
Nobody puts runs on the board like the Blue Jays do.
This season, the AL East club has scored 59 more runs than any other team in baseball. The scary part isn't just that the Jays lineup is stacked with dangerous hitters, but that it's stacked with bats that could give the club a lead with a single swing.
Donaldson, who is a front-runner for the AL MVP, leads the team with 29 bombs. But he's just one of Toronto's home run threats. Including Troy Tulowitzki's production with the Colorado Rockies, the Jays have six players who have hit at least 10 home runs.
Why the Washington Nationals are a nightmare matchup
1. Max Scherzer
Entering the season, the Washington Nationals weren't supposed to be a part of the wild-card conversation.
But with the club staring up at the New York Mets in the NL East standings, a trip to the Wild Card Game is suddenly a very real possibility. In fact, there's no guarantee the Nats will even make it that far. If the season ended right now, Washington would be on the outside looking in.
Fortunately, the Nats can call on Max Scherzer if the club does end up in the win-or-go-home game. In his first season in the nation's capital, the righty has made a habit of absolutely dominating the opposition. On his way to posting a 2.31 ERA, Scherzer has piled up at least nine strikeouts in 10 of his 22 starts.
2. The pen
Falling behind the Nats could be the kiss of death.
Jonathan Papelbon, whom Washington acquired in a swap with the Philadelphia Phillies, is the closer, but he's not the team's most fearsome reliever. That distinction belongs to Drew Storen, who recently retired 19 consecutive batters, according to the team's Twitter account.
The way Scherzer, Storen and Papelbon have been pitching, the Nats would likely only need a single run to get through a potential wild-card playoff.
Why the Pittsburgh Pirates are a nightmare matchup
1. Gerrit Cole
Apparently Gerrit Cole doesn't understand just how good he is. As the right-hander explained to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was caught off guard by the reception he received from his fellow All-Stars at last month's Midsummer Classic.
“David Price comes and finds me out in the lobby and says, ‘Dude, I really enjoy watching you pitch.’ I’m just like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Watch your own games, bro. I just throw fastballs inside. You’re painting all over the place, striking the world out.’ ”
It's time for Cole to look up his own numbers. This season, the 24-year-old has emerged as one of the most dominant starters in the NL, posting the third-best ERA (2.29) in the Senior Circuit.
The Bucs are occupying the top spot in the wild-card standings, and Cole is the pitcher to get the club past the one-game playoff and into the NL Division Series.
2. The relief crew
Like the Nats, the Pirates are a bad team to fall behind against. Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster in the bullpen in Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, who are all sporting ERAs south of 2.59.
Melancon has been the most intimidating of all, as he's been nearly perfect when handed a lead in the ninth. In 2015, the All-Star reliever has locked up 34 saves in 35 tries, and he just gets better as the postseason approaches. In his last 30 appearances, Melancon has allowed a single earned run.
San Francisco Giants
Why the San Francisco Giants are a nightmare matchup
1. Madison Bumgarner
Madison Bumgarner just loves the postseason.
MadBum owns a more-than-respectable 3.09 ERA in seven seasons, but in October, that figure drops by nearly a run to 2.09.
Last fall, the left-hander was brilliant for the San Francisco Giants, as the club snagged its third World Series title in five seasons. Bumgarner recorded a 1.03 ERA in seven outings, limiting the opposition to a .153 average. And it all started with his brilliant shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card playoff.
2. All those timely hits
The Giants just always seem to get it done when it matters most.
In 2015, the NL West club is batting .299 with runners in scoring position and two outs, which is the highest mark in the bigs. San Francisco's .811 OPS is also tops in the majors.
Unsurprisingly, Buster Posey, who is building a compelling resume to become the NL MVP, is a monster in those situations. This season, the backstop has cracked four home runs and posted a .489 average and a 1.385 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Dark-horse Rookie of the Year candidate Matt Duffy has also been seriously clutch, hitting .429 with a 1.071 OPS.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.