The Chicago Cubs were eliminated in the 2018 National League Wild Card Game by the Colorado Rockies. The game took approximately 28 innings and seven hours, which means there’s plenty to discuss. Do you want to talk about the Denver kid, Kyle Freeland? Yeah, that seems like a great idea. What about the spunky pluck of Tony Wolters? Sure. If you want to get dark, we can talk about the Cubs and the opportunities they squandered all game, if not all year. Why were they even in the Wild Card Game in the first place?
It’s all compelling. It was a tremendous baseball game and another argument in favor of the single-game elimination format of the wild card.
For my money, though, nothing beats the story of the pinch-runner who came into the game in the eighth inning.
Terrance Gore was the hero until he was a goat until he was a footnote. The Cubs had the bright idea of adding a mega-pinch-runner to their postseason roster, and it looked like it would be the smartest move anyone would make this October. Entire Yes albums have been made out of subjects less exotic and thrilling as Gore’s dash around the bases. He immediately stole second with two outs in the eighth inning, and then he scored the tying run on a single. It was so damned pure.
And then he had to swing a bat.
This was in the 13th inning. Because he had replaced Anthony Rizzo, who can actually hit.
Do not make fun of the Cubs for trying this, though. It was beautiful until it wasn’t. The biggest problem was that the Cubs scored one (1) run in an elimination game, and there aren’t enough narratives in the world to gloss over that. Picking apart individual performances and decisions seems silly when the collective performance looked like something the 2013 Cubs would barf up on the back end of a doubleheader.
But it was Gore who was the most compelling story for a few seconds, an asteroid burning up on reentry. He had appeared in eight career postseason games before tonight, and his team had won all eight. When a team put him in, it was like they were playing a Magic: The Gathering card that allowed them to take the other player’s wallet. With a pinch-running appearance and a stolen base, Gore was the reason the Cubs tied the game. For a moment, he felt like the reason they were going to win it all.
Then Gore had to swing a bat.
And he did! With great gusto! On what would have been ball four? On what would have been a leadoff walk. On a ball that would have put the tying run on base.
If Gore got on base to lead off the 13th inning, then the Rockies would have clenched their everything just a little bit tighter, and it would have become a nauseous cat-and-mouse game that would have favored the Cubs. Gore is a runner who was seemingly created, Serpentor-style, from DNA extracted from Vince Coleman, Maury Wills, and Herb Washington, and the Cubs were an ill-advised swing from getting him on base and looking like the smartest team in the land. Every postseason team should have a Terrance Gore on the roster, just for this reason, and they would look like geniuses.
Until he has to swing a bat.
Gore had to swing a bat, he didn’t reach base, and it’s not a secret why. Baseball is hard. Really, really hard. It’s freaking hard to hit a Scott Oberg slider. It’s hard to take the 52nd major league plate appearance of your life with a season on the line and parse the difference between a slider just under the zone and a slider in the zone. It was an unfair ask of Gore, and it ended about how you would have expected.
Twitter screamed at Gore for swinging, but that’s too reductive. Fellow speedster Dee Gordon walked nine times in 588 plate appearances this year, not because he was impatient, but because major league pitchers have enough skill to say, “I’m not dumb enough to walk this guy.” It’s what pitchers did with Juan Pierre before him. Gore was thinking strike, and he should have been. Honestly, it was Oberg who screwed up more by throwing anything outside of the strike zone, even if it was a good pitch.
Gore didn’t reach base because baseball is hard, and that’s a perfect reminder of what the postseason really is. It’s about angles and imperceptible advantages and moments in time. It’s about having that guy at the plate exactly at the right time, when it took about 47 different roster moves to get that guy on the roster in the first place. For just a few minutes, it looked like the Cubs had figured it out. They had the speedster, and they had tied the game because of his speedsing.
It almost worked.
And then he had to swing a bat.
Ned Yost deployed a nuclear Terrance Gore for the Royals and won two pennants with his help. The Cubs weren’t drunk when they figured they would try the same thing; it was an inspired decision. Now they look like dinguses with the benefit of hindsight, even though replacing Rizzo for Gore was the reason the game was tied in the first place. The right player at the right time became the wrong player at the wrong time.
Which means it looks like it’s time to dust this off again:
It’s taken me about four decades to realize that’s the entire postseason, summed up into a sentence: It’s a fine line between stupid and clever. The lefty-masher who doesn’t really have another skill, that third lefty in the bullpen, the September call-up who was blowing 100 mph ... these are all postseason tropes that get added to the roster at the last second because of someone’s wild hunch. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. It’s entertaining as all hell either way, and sometimes the three-inning reliever eats the bear, and sometimes the bear eats the three-inning reliever.
If we’re into baseball as entertainment, we should root for hunches like Gore to work. It’s fun as hell to watch Gore run around the bases. It was clever until it was stupid, but it nearly worked.
The Rockies are moving on because of boring things like “strong starting pitching” and “a lineup featuring talented hitters,” and the Cubs were eliminated because they scored one (1) run in 13 innings. For a brief moment, though, we all saw a peek of an alternate universe in which Terrance Gore took charge.
I would like the ability to live in that alternate universe from time to time, if that’s okay.
I would also like the ability to flip back to the regular universe, where teams employ talented, well-rounded players to play the cleanest and best baseball possible. Both realities are desirable, even if one seems more likely than the other.
Welcome to the postseason. It’s dumb as hell, unless it’s completely brilliant. Nothing makes sense, and everyone goes home too early, except for that one team.
I can’t believe we still have a whole month of this stuff.