It took a historic marathon of a National League Wild Card Game, but the Colorado Rockies' dreams of a first World Series title are still alive.
Colorado defeated the Chicago Cubs, 2-1, in a 13-inning showdown Tuesday at Wrigley Field. It was the longest win-or-go-home playoff game in MLB history, and it prevented the Cubs from reaching their fourth straight National League Championship Series.
Tony Wolters, who did not start the game, delivered the game-winning RBI single in the top of the 13th, and Scott Oberg closed the door on the North Siders in the bottom of the frame.
Rockies Bats Must Find Road Magic for World Series Run
Colorado's offensive struggles on the road were a primary talking point entering the playoffs, for good reason.
According to ESPN.com, the Rockies led MLB in OPS at home but were an ugly 27th away from Coors Field. Those issues were on full display during Monday's National League West tiebreaker loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, as they didn't score until the ninth inning, and they looked to rear their ugly head again Tuesday when Nolan Arenado's sacrifice fly in the first inning was their only run until the 13th.
However, October often comes down to unexpected heroes, as Colorado can now attest.
With two outs and nobody on base, Trevor Story and Gerardo Parra singled before Wolters drove home the winner. While Story is a notable name, Parra and Wolters were not exactly the expected heroes in a lineup featuring Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Gonzalez and Ian Desmond.
The Rockies will need that type of October magic to deliver a championship to Colorado. Otherwise, their pitchers will need to be brilliant, like starter Kyle Freeland was against the Cubs with 6.2 scoreless innings and six strikeouts.
The Rockies' road issues aren't going to disappear overnight, but a timely hit in clutch moments can be the difference between an early exit and a deep postseason run.
Toothless Cubs Must Find Offensive Answers Next Season
Jon Lester deserved better.
The three-time World Series champion entered Tuesday's contest with a 2.55 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 25 playoff appearances, and he threw another masterpiece, allowing one run, four hits and one walk while striking out nine in six brilliant innings. He was the emotional leader for the team, consistently imploring the offense and crowd to deliver.
It was all for naught, as one of the worst offenses in baseball over the final month put up one measly run.
Chicago ranked 24th in OPS in September, per ESPN.com, which is a primary reason the Milwaukee Brewers caught them and won the National League Central. There was also a power outage on the North Side, as an offense that was third in the National League in homers in 2017 was a mere 11th this year.
Javier Baez—in a fitting metaphor for a season in which he carried Chicago's offense on his back for extended stretches—delivered a game-tying double in the eighth, but that was the Cubs' only run.
The offense on display in the most important games of the year will not cut it for a win-now team with a number of core pieces still in place. The Cubs must find offensive answers this offseason, whether it is signing Bryce Harper, changing some of the coaching staff, adding lower-profile but impactful bats or rehabbing Kris Bryant after he dealt with injuries throughout the season.
Otherwise, they won't be World Series contenders in 2019.
Brewers Bullpen vs. Rockies Starters Will Determine NLDS
The battle within the battle in the Division Series between the Rockies and Brewers will be which team can beat the other's strength.
Milwaukee can build an early lead with Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and the rest of the offense and then drastically shorten contests with a dominant bullpen featuring the likes of Josh Hader, Joakim Soria, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress. All manager Craig Counsell needs is four or five effective innings from the starters, and the bullpen can do the rest.
That was the blueprint the Brewers used to beat the Cubs in Monday's divisional tiebreaker game when Jhoulys Chacin allowed one run in 5.2 innings before the bullpen slammed the door.
On the other side, Freeland and German Marquez form a daunting one-two punch of starting pitchers who can dictate the series with three starts between them. Freeland's prowess was on full display at Wrigley, while Marquez was named National League Pitcher of the Month in September with a 2.14 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.
The Brewers have plenty of potent bats, but Marquez and Freeland are talented enough to take over the short series and send the NL Central champions home quickly.
Colorado knows it has to get to Milwaukee's starters early before the bullpen, while the Brewers have to battle the Rockies' one-two punch and force the bullpen to throw plenty of innings.
The Rockies turn their attention toward a National League Division Series showdown with the Brewers. The best-of-five series starts Thursday in Milwaukee.