DENVER — It all comes down to this to determine whether the Rockies or the Padres will win the National League’s Wild Card berth.
“We’re going to play game No. 163,” said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle on Sunday after his team edged the Diamondbacks, 4-3, to win for the 13th time in its last 14 games. “There’s still some craziness out there. We’re happy about it, very happy about it.”
The one-game tiebreaker will be played on Monday at Coors Field beginning at 5:37 p.m. MT and will be carried live on TBS. The winner will play the Phillies in an NL Division Series beginning on Wednesday in Philadelphia. The Padres saved Cy Young favorite Jake Peavy (19-6) to face Colorado’s Josh Fogg (10-9) in a battle of right-handers.
With the Rockies winning and the Padres losing on the final day of the regular season, both teams have 89-73 records.
“We had this mapped out for a while, that it could come down to this,” said Padres manager Bud Black after his team lost, 11-6, to the Brewers in Milwaukee. “If that was the case, we felt good with Jake the way he’s been throwing on regular rest. Jake will be ready.”
Yogi Berra once said as the shadows crept across the field late in autumn games at the original Yankee Stadium that “it got late early” there. Well, the stars aligned on a crisp early fall afternoon at Coors Field, as those shadows extended past the mound and the Rockies battled the Diamondbacks just to extend their season.
The Rockies scored three times against the NL West champion D-backs in the eighth inning just as the Padres’ final score was posted on the scoreboard to the roaring approval of 46,375 in the ballpark, who all afternoon reacted with standing ovations each time a positive result for their team from Milwaukee went up. The Rockies then held on for dear life in the ninth, reliever Manny Corpas leaping off the mound to make a spectacular play on a Stephen Drew grounder, and then barely nipping him at first to end the game with the tying run on base.
“When [Drew] hit that ball, I didn’t think [Corpas] could make that play,” said Arizona manager Bob Melvin, whose club flew home after the game to open its NLDS against the Cubs at Chase Field on Wednesday.
The Rockies, considered a dead entity only two weeks ago when they began an 11-game winning streak that hoisted them into the race, were 6 1/2 games back in the NL West and 4 1/2 games behind in the Wild Card as late as Sept. 16.
“I mean, it’s hard to believe,” said Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday, a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate who’s poised to win the NL batting title with a .340 average. “It’s hard to believe we won 13 of our last 14 and we’re still not in. We still have to play a game. That’s the way it kind of shook out. But here we are with a chance, and that’s all we can ask.”
The Padres played nip and tuck with the Diamondbacks all September for the NL West lead, and they seemed to have a playoff spot well in hand when Colorado came into San Diego last weekend. The Rockies swept the series, and in the final game, the Padres lost Milton Bradley and Mike Cameron to season-ending injuries.
Losers of four in a row and on the precipice of dropping their fifth this past Tuesday night in San Francisco, Brian Giles hit a two-out, three-run, ninth-inning homer to win the game and perhaps save the season. The Padres won four straight from that juncture and were on the cusp of clinching the Wild Card on Saturday at Milwaukee when Tony Gwynn Jr. tripled off Trevor Hoffman to tie the score, again with two out in the ninth.
The Brewers went on to win in 11 innings and then clobbered the Padres on Sunday. Now the Padres have their best pitcher on the mound in another key situation. But buyer beware: Peavy has been awful in his postseason starts the last two years against the Cardinals, losing both of them while being shellacked to the tune of a 12.10 ERA.
This year, though, he says he’s healthy and ready.
“It’s going to be fun,” Peavy said. “We’re starting the playoffs with Game 7. I think the boys will come out battling, fighting hard. The season is still alive. You play 162, and you still need one more to decide if you’re going home or you’re in. We didn’t want it to get to this point, but I’m excited about the challenge.”
Fogg, for his part, has never remotely pitched in this situation. After all, Colorado has never played in one. They’ve made only one playoff appearance and none since 1995, when the Rockies lost a four-game first-round series to the Braves, who were on their way to defeating the Indians in that fall’s World Series.
This current group of players, who were mostly nurtured in the system, has no playoff experience, including mainstay Todd Helton, who is playing in his first game of any postseason import during his 11-year career, all with the Rockies.
“I welcome it. I can’t wait,” Fogg said. “You wouldn’t be in here if you didn’t welcome this opportunity. I’m going to have a blast. I’m going to have a good time out there. I plan on winning, but if something happens and it doesn’t work out right, I’m going to have fun doing it.”
And really, that’s the point, isn’t it? Big kids playing a little kids game. This one for a postseason berth in single elimination, the first in the less-than-storied histories for each of these franchises, which don’t own a single World Series championship between them.
But then, there’s always that first time.
“This is going to be huge for us,” said Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe, whose two-run, eighth-inning double provided the slim margin of Sunday’s victory. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be intimidated, but there’s certainly a heightened sense of awareness of what’s going on around us.”