MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Must-win Wild Card brings can't-miss thrills

Must-win Wild Card brings can't-miss thrills

Moments before the Giants and Pirates played the National League Wild Card Game in 2014, Hunter Pence motioned to his teammates inside the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park and offered some context for the day.

"We're here because we weren't good enough to win our division," he said simply. "But this game allows us a chance to keep playing. If you're a competitive person, you love that opportunity."

There you go.

NL Wild Card Game preview

If you want to know why these AL and NL Wild Card Games are so appealing -- and why Tuesday's Orioles-Blue Jays showdown (8 p.m. ET on TBS) and Wednesday's Mets-Giants tilt (8 p.m. ET on ESPN) are Must See TV -- that's it. In just four seasons, they've already delivered some classic baseball.

For instance:

2014 NL Wild Card Game
Giants 8, Pirates 0

Giants ace Madison Bumgarner began one of the great postseason runs any player has ever had by pitching a shutout. Twenty-eight days later, Bumgarner was the hero again as the Giants beat the Royals, 3-2, in Game 7 of the World Series.

That opportunity of which Pence spoke, the Giants took it and ran with it, becoming the first -- and thus far only -- Wild Card Game winner to capture the World Series since MLB added a second Wild Card spot and winner-take-all Wild Card Game in '12.

MadBum pitches Giants into NLDS

2014 AL Wild Card Game
Royals 9, Athletics 8 in 12 innings

This surely is the best Wild Card Game we've seen thus far, a 4-hour, 45-minute marathon that evolved from a mere game into an epic contest of wills. The Royals won it, 9-8, after rallying from a 7-3 deficit in the eighth inning and an 8-7 deficit in the 12th.

The Royals are the only other Wild Card winner to even play in a World Series, and that victory in '14 propelled them to a great two-year run in which they went to the Fall Classic in two straight years and won it in '15.

Royals rally for Wild win

2015 NL Wild Card Game 
Cubs 4, Pirates 0

This was arguably the best Wild Card matchup, a 98-win Pirates team against a 97-win Cubs club. They both finished behind a 100-win Cardinals club in the stacked NL Central.

That day might have offered the best Wild Card pitching matchup we've seen -- Jake Arrieta (No. 2 in ERA) against Gerrit Cole (No. 7) -- until this year, but more on that below.

Arrieta was at his Cy Young best, pitching a five-hit, zero-walk, 11-strikeout shutout in a 4-0 victory. Having lost back-to-back Wild Card Games to Bumgarner and Arrieta, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle summed it up thusly: "Sometimes, you draw a tough bull."

Arrieta's four-hit shutout

One reason the Wild Card Game is so appealing is that it's unique. It's just one shot. It's nine months of work on the line in one game. This high-wire act makes for splendid theater.

Baseball wanted it this way. The Wild Card Games have restored the importance of a team winning its division. Second, it kept more teams in contention deeper into the season and created a postseason atmosphere virtually every day of the final month.

The Astros and Yankees were only eliminated last Thursday. The Mariners' playoff hopes were ended when they lost in their 161st game. And Sunday, on the final day of the regular season, the Tigers and Cardinals finally saw their postseason hopes ended. All those clubs played their hearts out and just wish they could have one more chance. They don't, however, but these four teams do.

Here's why each club can win and which team should win.

2016 AL Wild Card Game
Blue Jays at Orioles

Both teams won 89 games, but the Blue Jays will host the game because they won the head-to-head matchup, barely (10-9).

Both took long and winding roads. The Orioles are here despite a rotation filled with question marks.

They overcame it with a great bullpen (AL-best 3.41 ERA from relievers), defense and an offense built around home runs. They also have one of the game's great managers, Buck Showalter.

Down the stretch, the Orioles found a rotation that worked. Ubaldo Jimenez had quality starts in six of his last seven games. Kid starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman were solid. And the Baltimore ace, Chris Tillman, allowed three earned runs or fewer in six of his final seven starts.

How They Got There: Orioles

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were 13-16 in September/October despite a rotation that had the second-best ERA in the Majors (3.27) in that time. That rotation couldn't overcome the worst offense in the Majors (3.7 runs per game) and a bullpen (4.60 ERA) that sprung leaks.

Nevertheless, they're playing in one of baseball's loudest stadiums, a place where they rode that energy past the Rangers in Game 5 of the ALDS in 2015.

That game also showed us the importance of power, as one swing can change a series, which is what we saw last year with Jose Bautista's epic bat flip in Game 5.

Bautista's go-ahead homer

And if you like playoff games with power, this is the one for you. The Orioles (253 homers) and Blue Jays (221) finished first and fourth in MLB, respectively, in that category. And a new Statcast™ metric called Barrels paints a similar picture. The slugging O's led the Majors with 337 Barrels, which was 21 more than any other team. The Blue Jays had 284 Barrels, second most among playoff teams.

Statcast: Machado's 450-ft. shot

Both these clubs are also loaded with postseason experience, which adds all kinds of possibilities to our search for potential heroes.

Gut feeling: If it's a bullpen game -- and it's likely to be -- the Orioles should win it. Their closer, Zach Britton, converted 47 of 47 save chances and had a 0.54 ERA. He allowed just one home run all season, and that came all the way back on April 11 when AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts took him deep.

No manager is better than Showalter at navigating his bullpen through the final seven or eight outs of game. This is where the Blue Jays have struggled in these closing weeks, and it could be the difference.

2016 NL Wild Card Game
Giants at Mets

With all due respect to Messrs. Arrieta and Cole (see above), in Noah Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner, we just might have the best Wild Card pitching matchup ever.

They ranked third and fourth, respectively, on MLB's ERA leaderboard, and both are in possession of two of the greatest arms in the game.

In fact, there is no starting pitcher who throws the ball as hard as consistently as Syndergaard, and there isn't even really anyone who comes close. According to Statcast™, his average perceived velocity on all of his pitches is 95.4 mph. No other starter is in his class, with Stephen Strasburg coming in at 92.8 mph.

Thor's winning start

These two teams rode very different waves into October. The Giants had baseball's best record at the All-Star break (57-33). The Mets have been baseball's best team the last six weeks (27-13).

In the end, though, they've both ended up at Citi Field for Wednesday's NL Wild Card Game.

The Giants lost 38 of their first 60 games after the break, but just when they seemed on the verge of slipping out of contention, they won eight of their final 12 to make their fourth straight even-year postseason appearance. The previous three ('10, '12. '14) have ended in championship celebrations, and if Bumgarner and Pence can recapture some of their '14 magic, the Giants have a chance.

Pence on the team's momentum

But the Mets might be the second-best team in the entire sport at the moment. From a pieced-together rotation to a powerful lineup to a deep bullpen, they're a team without a weakness.

Gut feeling: This is where the Giants have a chance to push a reset button on their season. It'll be on Bumgarner to do that because, at this moment, the Mets are a better team, and I'd give them the edge playing at home.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.