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Rockies’ playoff fate turned on a few unlucky plays

If football is a game of inches, baseball is a game of millimeters

The Colorado Rockies finished 2018 with a record of 91-72, the second most wins in franchise history, including a 44-38 record on the road, by far the best mark in franchise history. It took a 9-1 run to end the season to get there, but it was enough to secure their second straight playoff appearance for the first time in franchise history. The point is this team did things no other team has done in franchise history. Don’t forget that.

In the coming days there will be plenty of celebrations of all that was good from 2018. But first, we have to address the worst part of 2018, namely, how it ended. What if...

The Dodgers had lost one more game?

That 9-1 record over the last 11 days of September set the Rockies up to do something they had never done before: win a National League West title and secure home-field advantage in a playoff round. Now, we can be mad that the Los Angeles Dodgers went 7-3 in that span, or that the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants combined to go 1-6 against the Dodgers at home in the month of September when just one more Dodgers’ loss would’ve made history for the Rockies. But the Rockies went 1-5 against Los Angeles in September, so who can you really blame? It still makes you wonder, though, what if...

Tony Wolters hadn’t dropped that third strike?

So it was off to Chavez Ravine on October 1 to play the second Game 163 tiebreaker in Rockies history, this time with the second Wild Card as a fall back option. German Marquez took the mound, fresh off his record-setting performance the previous Wednesday. The game started well enough, with Marquez striking out four through three innings. He also struck out the leadoff hitter in the fourth...only to have him reach on a passed ball from Tony Wolters.

Marquez got the next two batters to strike out but he still had to pitch. Instead of Cody Bellinger leading off the bottom of the fifth, he hit a two-run home run to break the game open. Four extra batters meant German was going through the lineup the third time in the fifth inning, and Max Muncy made him pay (again) by hitting (another) two-run shot to effectively end the Rockies’ shot at a division title.

We don’t live in a universe where we can examine counterfactuals, but it’s hard not to wonder how the game would’ve gone had Wolters caught that pitch, or at least corralled it in time to finish the strikeout at first base. Maybe Marquez cruises through the bottom of the Dodgers lineup in the fifth and gets to the sixth before handing off to a well-rested bullpen. Maybe the Rockies pull it out and secure their first ever division title and host the Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS instead of traveling to Chicago.

Or maybe all Dave Roberts’ lefties end up getting to him anyway. Besides, Walker Buehler diced up the Rockies pretty good that day anyway and (as we’ll see) you can’t win if you can’t score. Really, it’s probably too many counterfactuals to consider. But what if...

The ivy doesn’t swallow DJ’s double?

The Rockies lost Game 163 and had to travel to Chicago for their second straight appearance in the Wild Card Game. There are probably at least a dozen different moments worth examining in this game (Like, what if Ottavino gets Baez to strike out in the eighth?), but most of those are about execution. There was one moment in particular that turned on some luck. In the top of the first, Charlie Blackmon led off with a walk and then DJ LeMahieu laced a 112 mph double into the left-centerfield gap. But, this is Wrigley Field, and strange things happen.

A ball into the ivy is a ground rule double and despite the fact that Chuck was rounding second when the Almora threw up his hands, it was second and third with nobody out. Arenado stepped to the plate and popped a sac fly to right-center to give the Rockies their only run for 12 innings.

Had the ball popped out of the ivy, though, it’s 1-0 Rockies with nobody out, DJ on second, and Nolan at the plate. It’s not unreasonable to like the Rockies’ chances to add on, even against Jon Lester. Of course, the Rockies ended up winning this game, so it’s a moot point, but what if...

Charlie’s ninth inning foul ball lands two inches to the left?

The Rockies took their Wild Card Game victory into Milwaukee to face the NL Central champs. Antonio Senzatela pitched admirably, allowing just a two-run home run to presumptive MVP Christian Yelich over five innings. It was 2-0 Brewers with their 1.25 ERA closer Jeremy Jeffress on the mound. Gerardo Parra and Matt Holliday led off with singles and then Charlie Blackmon sent a ball deep into the right-field corner.

The ball was (rightly) deemed foul on review, but it seemed to be a cruel fate. Charlie did manage to single home the Rockies’ first run four pitches later. DJ LeMahieu reached on an error to load the and Nolan launched another sac fly to tie the game. A TOOTBLAN at third by Chuck and a Story strikeout later and Jeffress was out of it.

Had that ball from Charlie landed two inches to the left, it’s likely ruled fair and the Rockies have a tie game with no outs in the ninth and the heart of the order coming up. Again, it’s possible the top of the ninth ends with the same result anyway. But what if...

Tony Wolters catches that foul tip?

Yelich led off the bottom of the 10th with a walk and was standing on third with two outs and Mike Moustakas facing Adam Ottavino. Otto got him down two strikes then threw a 96 mph fastball at the top of the zone. (I advise Rockies fans to stop the video at the 23 second mark).

It’s a great pitch in the right situation, but Moustakas was just able to nick the ball enough that Wolters couldn’t catch it. The next pitch, of course, Otto tries to go to the same place and this time Moustakas gets enough to end the game for the Brewers.

Had Moustakas swung through that first 0-2 pitch, or had he tipped it in a way that Tony still catches it, the inning is over and the Rockies lead off the 11th with the pitcher’s spot and then the top of the lineup. Maybe they complete the comeback and, at worst, the series goes to four games. Or maybe they lose it in the bottom of the 11th, or 12th, or so on. But what if...

★ ★ ★

Of course, exercises like these can go on ad infinitum. The Rockies, of course, had their fair share of bounces go their way over the last week. And there were plenty of opportunities where players simply didn’t execute. If nothing else this goes to show just how much good or bad fortune goes into any team’s ultimate success or failure, especially when you get down into tiny, one to three game samples.

These tiny bounces show just how much mere millimeters can change the outcome of a game and the trajectory of a season. While it’s tempting to think the Rockies might still be playing had these bounces gone differently, baseball is made up of far more than bounces.