What Rockies-Padres wild-card classic means to baseball 10 years later

Big League Stew

You might not realize it, but baseball as we knew it was changed forever 10 years ago today.

On Oct. 1, 2007, the Colorado Rockies played host to the San Diego Padres in a one-game tiebreaker to determine which team would secure the one and only NL wild card. What played out was one of the most dramatic — and perhaps even controversial — games in MLB history. It’s the night the seeds were planted for two changes that are now staples: the wild-card game and instant replay.

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For 13 pulse-pounding innings, the division rivals used every player on their 40-man roster (it was considered an extension of the regular season) and traded their best shots. Then, in an ending typically reserved for Hollywood, the Rockies won by the skin on Matt Holliday’s chin. Literally.

The Rockies outfielder was ruled safe after chugging down the third-base line on Jamey Carroll’s shallow fly ball. The crowd was euphoric. The Padres were gutted. And baseball fans in general were some mixture of exhilarated, confused and mostly disappointed that it had to end.

End it did, but all of these years later it’s still part of baseball’s fabric because of the moments it provided and the questions it left behind.

At the time, no one could have guessed what this single game could mean for the future of baseball, particularly as it relates to the postseason format. There had been classic tiebreaker games before. Most notably, in 1978 the Yankees and Red Sox played a Game 163 to determine the AL East. That’s more commonly referred to as the “Bucky Dent game” for his game-winning home run.

There was another classic in 2008, where the White Sox topped the Twins 1-0, to win the AL Central. Then another in 2009, where the Twins rebounded to down the Tigers 6-5 in 12 innings at the old Metrodome. But none of them were quite like Rockies-Padres.

Part of that’s because it was a game that never should have happened. The Rockies were basically afterthoughts two weeks prior, before going on to win 13 of their final 14 regular season games. Even then, they needed help from the Milwaukee Brewers on the last weekend of the season just to draw even with San Diego.

In one of baseball’s most ironic twists of fate, it was Tony Gwynn Jr., son of Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who delivered the most crushing blow to San Diego. His two-out, game-tying triple against Trevor Hoffman on Sept. 29 led to the first of three straight gut-wrenching losses.

By the time the Padres arrived in Denver, it was clear these were two teams going in opposite directions. The outcome seemed almost inevitable, yet somehow their paths crisscrossed all night long and sewed a classic before settling at their destination.

It was the blueprint for which MLB hopes the wild-card game to be. It’s one shot for two good teams to win a lottery ticket. It’s a chance for two teams to prove themselves or redeem themselves. It’s about imagining something crazy, something magnificent, or even something ridiculous, deciding a team’s season. It’s about anticipating the drama as much as it is creating it.

As we’ve seen, some wild-card games have been hits. Others have missed the intended mark since becoming part of the postseason in 2012. What Rockies-Padres told us then and reminds us now is that we’re always just one game away from witnessing something crazy and wonderful.

Matt Holliday slides around Padres catcher Michael Barrett during the 2007 tiebreaker game. (AP)
Matt Holliday slides around Padres catcher Michael Barrett during the 2007 tiebreaker game. (AP)

If you want the definition of memorable, it’s the chaotic scene around home plate in the moments after Holliday’s slide. It’s waiting for umpire Tim McClelland to make a call — any call — so we could react.

The visual of Matt Holliday’s bloody chin afterward only told us one thing — his slide hurt every bit as much as it appeared to. What we couldn’t tell was whether he’d actually touched home plate. Even McClelland seemed hesitant, only signaling after catcher Michael Barrett fumbled the ball.

That final play has left people wondering if instant replay may have changed the result of that play and perhaps altered the outcome of the game, thus potentially changing the landscape of the entire postseason. Remember, Colorado went on to win seven straight games to make the World Series, only to be swept by the Boston Red Sox.

Most angles seemed to suggest Holliday never touched the plate, but no single angle was definitive. If today’s version of instant replay had been in effect, the umpires might still be on the headsets to New York. It would have been difficult to overturn the call and impossible to confirm it. And that’s before they determined if Barrett was illegally blocking home plate.

Nonetheless, that single moment put a sharper focus on the impact replay could have, particularly in games where one missed call could change an entire season.

Members of the 2007 Rockies celebrate their tiebreaker game victory. (AP)
Members of the 2007 Rockies celebrate their tiebreaker game victory. (AP)

Some believe the wild-card game was the true launching point for the Rockies, while others go back two weeks earlier to Todd Helton’s walk-off home run against the Dodgers. Truth be told, it could be both, and it could be neither. Baseball is always comfortable leaving us guessing.

All we can do is study the samples and draw our own conclusions on whether the wild-card game actually creates momentum for the teams that advance.

If anything, it feels like it should. Wild-card games serve as an opportunity for the team’s involved to shake the nerves and gain some confidence before taking on their respective league’s best team. But the truth is wild-card teams have been enjoying great success since the very beginning.

From 1995-2011, when there was no scheduled play-in games, wild card teams advanced 50-percent of the time (17 out of 34 chances). Some of those matchups came against No. 2 seeds. That’s because division teams were not allowed to meet in the LDS. In some of those instances, the wild-card team even had a better record than their opponent. Regardless, a 50-percent success rate is excellent.

Of those 17 teams that advanced, five went on to the win World Series, and another five went on to lose the World Series. So a little less than one-third of wild-card teams won at least two rounds. That’s also excellent.

Since the wild-card games have started, again, half the winners (five out of 10 to be exact) have advanced beyond the LDS. Of those five teams, two have gone to the World Series. Coincidentally, those both came in 2015 when the Giants defeated the Royals in seven games.

So yes, the wild-card itself has changed the postseason by lowering the odds of the favorites and giving more teams a shot to get hot at the right time. But the wild-card game hasn’t proven to be an advantage or disadvantage on top of that. It’s just an extension of the previous postseason format and another opportunity for the league to cash in.

In looking back now, it’s crazy to think about how much traces right back to Oct. 1, 2007 and those four hours and forty minutes the Rockies and Padres were on the field.

Would baseball have added a wild-card game or instituted replay without that classic? It’s possible both answers are different, but it’s impossible to know that for sure. All we do know is the game happened, and for better or worse, our national pastime has never been the same.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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