The MLB wild-card game, which was instituted in 2012, has produced some of the sport’s most memorable moments. So, in anticipation of this year’s games, we ranked the 16 previous contests in order of worst to best performance.
Having the playoff field expand from eight to ten teams in 2012 didn’t please me. One bad inning could end an entire season, I thought the new wild-card games were just another made-for-TV trick.
This year’s National League wild-card matchup pits the Dodgers, a team that many consider being the best in the sport, against the Cardinals, who are currently 16 games back in the standings. To award a 100-win team with anything more than a one-game playoff is tantamount to giving them a coin toss.
In the nine years since I’ve changed my mind. The playoffs aren’t fair, but a winner-take-all game isn’t either. Baseball, like European soccer, would have a balanced schedule without playoffs if it wanted to be fair.
The wild-card games have been a huge hit on television, too. The slow-burn high-wire act of a decisive postseason baseball game is one of the most stressful experiences in sports. Every pitch has the potential to make or break a team’s season, so every ball and strike counts. It’s wonderful.
The 16 wild-card matchups we’ve received have been quite entertaining, of course. With thrilling seesaw battles, nail-biters in the extra innings, and star-making heroics, we’ve seen it all this season. Some games have been more exciting than others, but there has not been a single stinker in the bunch. Now that we have a good reason to revisit these classics, let’s rank all of the wild-card games from the last ten years.
16. 2019 AL
Rays 5, Athletics 1
It was a rough start for the A’s, as the Rays took advantage of Sean Manaea early on. On the fifth pitch of the game, Yandy Daz homered, and he did it again in the third.
Both Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham smashed home runs, but Oakland’s first-inning loaded bases against Charlie Morton were wasted. By the time the outrageous Tampa Bay bullpen took over in the sixth inning, this game was all but over.
Moment of significance: In addition to the two home runs by Daz, the most memorable moment occurred at the bottom of the first. Morton threw a curveball up in the zone to Jurickson Profar, who hit a fly ball to end the inning with two outs. The game’s outcome could have been entirely different if the A’s had scored even a single run in the first inning.
The loss dropped the Athletics to 0-3 all-time in wild-card games, a disappointing record for a team that consistently makes the playoffs but never lasts long.
15. 2013 AL
Rays 4, Cleveland 0
This was the Rays’ second winner-takes-all game in three days, following their victory over the Rangers in a playoff tiebreaker. Not a bad contest, but it didn’t have much drama either.
The top three hitters in Cleveland’s order—Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Jason Kipnis—were all held to one hit each by four Rays pitchers. Despite having the tying or winning run at the plate in the final six innings, Cleveland went 0-for-6 and was hit by a walk.
An important play was Desmond Jennings’ two-run double between Lonnie Chisenhall and the third-base bag in the top of the fourth, extending the Rays’ lead from 1-0 to 3-0. A sighting of Desmond Jennings was exciting.
The second-to-last place is a reflection of the fact that the decisive play in the fourth inning resulted in a score of 3-0. Neither Cleveland’s win probability after that play nor after the bottom of the fifth inning rose above 17%.
This game was significant because Carlos Santana, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, and Kevin Kiermaier all made their postseason debuts in this matchup. This was Nick Swisher’s final postseason outing. After two consecutive winner-take-all contests, the Rays became the first and only MLB team to accomplish this feat.
14. 2018 AL
Yankees 7, Athletics 2
With the best reliever in baseball, Blake Treinen and several other top-tier bullpen arms capable of delivering multiple innings, Oakland were able to win the World Series. For starters, the Oakland A’s went with a hybrid approach: Liam Hendriks for one inning, Lou Trivino for three innings (Shawn Kelley for one), and so on.
It was unsuccessful. A two-run homer by Aaron Judge in the first inning set the tone, and Luis Severino and the rest of the excellent New York bullpen held Oakland scoreless until the top of the eighth inning when it was too late.
Moment of truth: Oakland’s bullpen strategy was doomed to fail unless Treinen put the team’s hopes in him, which he blatantly failed to do. The circumstances of his entry into the game were less than ideal: It was 3-0 with Aaron Hicks at third and no one out in the bottom of the ninth.
Treinen, on the other hand, promptly allowed the inherited runner to score, as well as two of his own. A tall order, but Treinen’s ability to put out that fire might have had more of an impact on the final score than it did otherwise.
The failure of this bullpen game didn’t discourage others from attempting it in the future. A strong starting rotation was not enough for the 2020 Rays to make it to the World Series.
13. 2018 NL
Rockies 2, Cubs 1 (13 innings)
This was a dreadful five hours of baseball, and I fully expect to be criticised for giving it a low rating even though the game was close. Sure, we got to see a great pitchers’ duel between Kyle Freeland and Jon Lester for six innings and a change. But after Freeland and Lester left the field, the Cubs and Rockies played a nearly complete game of offensive profligacy. Tony Wolters, a.170 hitters, faced Kyle Hendricks in the top of the 13th inning, and the Cubs and Rockies had both gone 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position. Because someone had to, the Rockies prevailed.
In the eighth inning, Joe Maddon sent out Terrance Gore to pinch-run for Anthony Rizzo, the consummate tactical kibitzer who used 23 players in this game. Going into extra innings, Maddon had a cleanup hitter who had only managed one hit in his entire MLB career up to that point: Frank Gore. Over the final five innings, the Cubs did not record a single hit.
Historical significance: The Cubs’ three-year run from 2015 to 2018 included three appearances in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) and the famous World Series championship. (Does a team’s appearance in the 2020 playoffs after two losses count?) Is it going to be remembered? Who knows? After Colorado’s drubbing in the NLDS, this game could be the answer to a 20-year-old trivia question: What was the outcome of the game? What was the Rockies’ most recent postseason victory?
12. 2015 AL
Astros 3, Yankees 0
When Dallas Keuchel took the mound, he threw six innings of shutout baseball against the New York Yankees. To commemorate his game-winning home run in the second inning, Colby Rasmus donned a space wrestler-inspired outfit.
This was a game-changing moment, as Rasmus’ home run started one of the most incredible comebacks in MLB playoff history. Rasmus had a.412/.583/1.176 batting average with four home runs in six postseason games in 2015. The Astros traded away their former cleanup hitter before they won the World Series, so nobody remembers him despite the shirtless goggles photo. Colby Rasmus, on the other hand, smashed like Barry Bonds for a week.
11. 2017 AL
Yankees 8, Twins 4
It would have been an all-time great if this game had been played backwards. In the first three innings, Yankees starter Luis Severino allowed three runs on three hits, while Ervin Santana and José Berros combined to give up seven runs in the first five frames, turning what looked like a duel into a slugfest.
Even so, the Yankees’ star relievers came on late in the game to keep the score low, as was customary during this period. Byron Buxton’s spectacular leaping catch in the bottom of the second saved a 3-3 tie.
10. 2012 AL
Orioles 5, Rangers 1
To sum up: The Rangers were heavy favourites in this game because they had two-time defending AL champion Yu Darvish on the mound, while the Orioles were playing an incoherent Joe Saunders and his junk balling crew. Saunders matched Darvish’s pitching, and in the sixth and seventh innings, Baltimore struck.
In the ninth inning, the Rangers brought the tying run to the plate, but Jim Johnson (who, uh, remember? Back-to-back seasons of 50 saves!) retired David Murphy to send Texas to their first loss in a row.
J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado, a 20-year-old rookie, were among an exceptional defensive infield that kept the ball on the ground in front of Saunders. In the first five innings, that infield made three double-plays, keeping Texas off the scoreboard.
This was the final postseason game for the Rangers’ Ron Washington–Josh Hamilton era, as well as the debut of an Orioles team that never assembled an inspiring roster but won more games than any other American League team from 2012 to 2016.
9. 2014 NL
Giants 8, Pirates 0
With a four-hit shutout, Madison Bumgarner began his postseason reign of terror with 10 strikeouts and walked only one. The Giant’s offence faced Edinson Vólquez and the Pittsburgh bullpen, and he went on to record a game score of 88, which no one has since beaten in a playoff start.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how lopsided the wild card game was because it helped cement Bumgarner’s place in playoff history.
On the same day that the Pirates lost this game, Kevin and Debbie Bumgarner of Hickory, North Carolina welcomed a son into the world. By comparison, only six earned runs were allowed by Bumgarner during the 2014 postseason — perhaps the best playoff run by an MLB starter ever.
8. 2015 NL
Cubs 4, Pirates 0
Jake Arrieta is one of only two pitchers to tie Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 88-game win streak. Arrieta threw 113 pitches, 77 of which were strikes, to defeat the Pirates, allowing just five hits, no walks, and 11 strikeouts. Aside from the excellent relief pitching after Cole’s lone outing, Pittsburgh never had a chance. It’s possible that Arrieta could have given Pittsburgh five outs an inning and still kept them at bay.
7. 2013 NL
Pirates 6, Reds 2
There was a concern that a team could be eliminated from the playoffs without having played a home game in the one-game wild card format. For a team like Pittsburgh, which ended a 20-year playoff drought by finishing second in the NL Central in 2013, this was a major concern. It was fortunate for the Pirates that they were able to take advantage of home-field advantage in this game. This is one of the most raucous crowds in baseball history.
The rapidity with which the chant gained momentum, Cueto dropped the ball, and Russell Martin hit the game-winning home run has a mystical quality to it. In this one minute, the 2013 NL wild-card game became one of baseball’s greatest ever.
Because of their stellar play in 2013 and 2014, the Pirates should have received more favourable wild-card round matchups against elite pitchers. For the time being, the Pirates will have to make do with Cueto as their only target.
6. 2016 NL
Giants 3, Mets 0
Madison Bumgarner CGSHO in yet another wild-card game. The stakes were higher than usual because Bumgarner was going up against a pitching prospect in Noah Syndergaard, a 24-year-old who was pitching at the top of his game. While Bumgarner went the distance, Syndergaard was pulled after seven innings and 108 pitches after striking out 10 and allowing just two hits.
In the ninth inning of a scoreless winner-takes-all playoff game, with two men on base, it’s a backyard fantasy come true. Conor Gillaspie hit the winning three-run home run for the 2010s Giants, not one of the six All-Stars who were on the field for San Francisco that night.
5. 2012 NL
Cardinals 6, Braves 3
It was one of the most controversial umpiring decisions of the 21st century, deciding the outcome of the first wild-card game between two teams with a lot of star power. Maybe the Cardinals deserved to win because they scored five runs off of Kris Medlen, who had allowed just 26 all season.
After a 6-3 lead in the eighth inning, a runner on first and second with one out, and Andrelton Simmons at the plate, this was a crucial moment.
As a result, we got into a debate about the definition of what constitutes an infield fly. As most observers expected, the Braves would have had the bases loaded and one out for Brian McCann if Pete Kozma’s lost pop-up had resulted in a single for Simmons. That didn’t happen, however, as Atlanta manager Fredi González suffered angina and the Turner Field crowd chanted for the death of empires. With this infield fly call, the wild-card game was proven to be an entertaining vehicle once and for all.
The Cardinals’ NLDS victory over top-seeded Washington was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Stephen Strasburg’s decision to sit out the series. This was the first postseason appearance for the team without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. Chipper Jones’ career came to an end with this game, but Atlanta has been a regular postseason participant ever since.
4. 2017 NL
Diamondbacks 11, Rockies 8
One of the most memorable Every Time I Die albums of all time. A 6-0 lead for the Arizona Diamondbacks was nearly blown, but the team held on in the face of a wild finish in which one run was scored in each of the game’s final five halves. At least nine of the 14 pitchers participated, allowing at least one runner to score.
One of the most important moments in this game was Archie Bradley’s two-run triple in the seventh innings, which he will be remembered for.
Torey Lovullo, the team’s rookie manager, was desperate enough to allow Bradley to get a hit. Lovullo was giving Bradley a chance to extend the lead even though he had only batted four times this season. Arizona would not have had enough reliable relievers to finish the game if Lovullo had lifted Bradley for a pinch-hitter.
That’s when Bradley threw a wild pitch into the gap and dashed off the field, giving the Diamondbacks their most memorable moment in the last decade and perhaps their most memorable player.
There is little historical significance to this place. As good as the Diamondbacks were in 2017, the Dodgers were overshadowed and then annihilated by them in the National League Championship Series. Nobody remembers them because they never made it to the playoffs again. Also, Fernando Rodney got the final out. When it comes to postseason appearances, Rodney has a wild-card record of three wins for three different teams, with the fourth appearance coming as a late-inning fill-in.
3. 2016 AL
Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2 (11 innings)
The Zack Britton game, in a nutshell. When the Orioles were in a dead heat on the road, manager Buck Showalter went through six relievers, but he didn’t use his closer, who had just finished one of the best relief seasons in MLB history. Because of Baltimore’s strong bullpen, Showalter was able to get away with it for a while, but when Ubaldo Jiménez came in to face Toronto’s top lineup with one out in the 11th, everything fell apart. It took Jimenez just five pitches to give up three runs, including a three-run home run by Edwin Encarnación, to Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson.
Encarnación put Jiménez’s first pitch through the back wall of the Rogers Centre, making the Orioles bring the infield in to prevent Travis from scoring on a ground ball.
The Orioles would have lasted longer with a few more innings from Britton, but you need to score to win the game. Moreover, the Orioles were hitless after Manny Machado’s single in the sixth inning with two outs. But Showalter should have used Britton sooner rather than later.
What Andrew Miller did later in the postseason was even more significant in changing the role of the relief ace than Showalter’s decision not to use his best pitcher.
2. 2019 NL
Nationals 4, Brewers 3
This was a nerve-wracking game, to say the least, and it was especially frightening at the end. Milwaukee, the NL’s top seed the year before, pounced early on Max Scherzer. A few shots were fired by the Washington offence, but the Milwaukee bullpen proved to be impenetrable.
While Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz cruised through the middle innings, Nats manager Dave Martinez—en route to his team’s first championship—picked no. 2 starter Stephen Strasburg out of the bullpen to hold the fort. And he did so for long enough to allow the Nationals to make a two-out rally in the eighth inning, off of Josh Hader of all people.
In this game, Hader didn’t look at his best, with two outs he hit Michael A. Taylor and allowed a Texas Leaguer to Ryan Zimmerman. At just 20 years old, Juan Soto was already a household name in the United States after he hit a routine single to right field that should have put Taylor and perhaps pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson in scoring position.
1. 2014 AL
Royals 9, Athletics 8 (12 innings)
As a result, determining the “greatest game ever” requires taking into account a variety of factors, such as actual gameplay as well as broader context. Seeing the game in action, as I did with this one in particular, also helps.
A raucous Kauffman Stadium crowd that hadn’t seen a playoff game in person since 1985 witnessed a 12-inning, five lead changes, 17 runs, 28 hits, and four All-Star pitchers. When James Shields was traded from St. Louis to Kansas City, it was widely criticised. The Royals’ win set off a Cinderella run to Game 7 of the World Series, as well as a slightly less Cinderella-like championship the following year.
Additionally, this game’s outcome was based on the greatest advanced scouting achievement of this decade. Scouts for the Royals noticed that the A’s starting pitcher Jon Lester and catcher Derek Norris were unable to control the running game, which is now widely known but was not at the time. A total of seven bases were stolen in eight attempts by eight different Kansas City players. The runs scored in the eighth, ninth, and 12th innings were all the result of stolen bases.
I’m not sure what else a sporting event could offer besides wild see-sawing action, contrasting styles of play, and enormous stakes. After Oakland briefly took the lead in the 12th inning, Salvador Perez’s game-winning single capped a two-run comeback.
With eight men on base, the Royals scored three runs against Lester and Luke Gregerson without a single extra-base hit in the eighth inning. It could have been worse had Gregerson not finished the inning with two strikeouts after allowing three singles and two walks. He also had a groundout, four stolen bases, a wild pitch, and a partridge in a pear tree inning.
The game’s most obvious legacy is that it marked the beginning of the Royals’ streak of back-to-back pennants. In July trades, the A’s added Lester, Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija, Jonny Gomes, and Sam Fuld, who weren’t as widely publicised but were just as crucial to the team’s success.
Then things went downhill fast, as they went from the top seed in the American League to a wild-card game on the road. With Josh Donaldson’s departure, the Red Sox returned to building teams only capable of making the playoffs.