When MLB expanded the playoff field from eight teams to 10 in 2012, I didn’t like it. I thought the new wild-card games were a made-for-TV gimmick, one that could end a great team’s season with one bad inning. Consider this year’s NL wild-card game, which will pit the Dodgers—arguably the best team in baseball—against a Cardinals team that currently finds itself 16 games behind L.A. A one-game playoff is nearer to a coin flip than anything resembling a fair reward for a 100-win team.
But over the past nine years, I’ve come around to the idea. Maybe a winner-take-all game isn’t fair, but neither is the postseason. If MLB wanted fair, it would implement a balanced schedule with no playoffs at all, like European soccer. And as TV spectacles go, the wild-card games have been a rousing success. There isn’t much in sports quite as stressful as the slow-burn high-wire act of a decisive playoff baseball game. Every pitch is a matter of life or death; every ball and strike carries the weight of a team’s full season. It’s great.
Of course, it helps that the 16 wild-card matchups we’ve gotten have been pretty entertaining. We’ve seen thrilling seesaw battles, extra-inning nail-biters, and star-making heroics. Not every game has played out like the finale of Little Big League, but there hasn’t really been a stinker in the bunch. So let’s rank all the wild-card games from the past decade—not to serve any particular analytical purpose, but because any excuse to revisit these classics is a good one.
16. 2019 AL
Rays 5, Athletics 1
Summary: The Rays jumped all over Sean Manaea early, and the A’s never quite found their counterpunch. Yandy Díaz took Manaea deep on the fifth pitch of the game, then homered again in the third. Avisaíl García and Tommy Pham added homers as well, and while Oakland loaded the bases against Charlie Morton in the bottom of the first, nothing came of it. This game was basically over by the time the outrageous Tampa Bay bullpen took over in the sixth inning.
Pivotal moment: Apart from the two Díaz home runs, the moment that stands out most came in the bottom of the first. Having loaded the bases with two outs, Morton hung a curveball up in the zone to Jurickson Profar, who turned the pitch into an easy fly ball to end the inning. If the A’s had scored even one run in the first inning, the entire course of the game could’ve been different.
Historical significance: With this loss, Oakland dropped to 0-3 all time in wild-card games, which is a pity for a team that so frequently squeezes into the playoffs but never seems to stay there long.
15. 2013 AL
Rays 4, Cleveland 0
Summary: This was the Rays’ second winner-take-all game in three days, after they beat the Rangers in a tiebreaker to make the postseason. This wasn’t a terrible contest, but it wasn’t terribly dramatic either. Four Rays pitchers kept Cleveland off the board, and held the top third of Cleveland’s order—Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Jason Kipnis—hitless in 12 at-bats.
Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead in the fourth, and in the game’s final six innings Cleveland went 0-for-6 with a walk with the tying or go-ahead run at the plate.
Pivotal moment: With two outs in the top of the fourth, Desmond Jennings—a Desmond Jennings sighting!—sneaked a two-run double between Lonnie Chisenhall and the third-base bag, extending the Rays’ lead from 1-0 to 3-0.
The fact that the decisive play made it 3-0 in the fourth inning illustrates why this game is in second-to-last place. Cleveland never got above 33 percent win probability after that play, and never got above 17 percent after the bottom of the fifth.
Historical significance: Carlos Santana, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, and Kevin Kiermaier made their postseason debuts in this game. Nick Swisher made his final postseason appearance. And the Rays became the first—and so far only—MLB team to play two winner-take-all games in a row.
14. 2018 AL
Yankees 7, Athletics 2
Summary: Oakland had the best reliever in baseball, Blake Treinen, and several other top-end bullpen arms capable of throwing multiple innings. So rather than name a traditional starting pitcher, the A’s went with a composite approach: Liam Hendriks for one inning, Lou Trivino for three, Shawn Kelley for one, and so on.
It didn’t work.
Aaron Judge tagged Hendriks with a two-run dinger in the first, and Luis Severino—backed by New York’s own excellent bullpen—held Oakland off the board until the top of the eighth, by which time the game was already out of hand.
Pivotal moment: Oakland’s bullpen plan was never going to work unless Treinen put the team on his back—and he did the opposite. He entered the game under less-than-ideal circumstances: Down 3-0, with Aaron Hicks at third, and nobody out. But Treinen immediately allowed the inherited runner—plus two of his own—to score. Putting out that fire was a lot to ask, but if Treinen had pulled it off, maybe Oakland’s late signs of offensive life would’ve had more than a cosmetic impact on the final line.
Historical significance: The failure of this bullpen game didn’t deter others from trying it. The 2020 Rays—despite having an outstanding starting rotation—openered and wholestaffed their way to the World Series.
13. 2018 NL
Rockies 2, Cubs 1 (13 innings)
Summary: I expect to get pushback for rating a close extra-inning contest so low, but this was just a miserable five hours of baseball. Sure, this game featured six innings and change of a great pitchers’ duel, as Kyle Freeland and Jon Lester traded zeroes. But after Freeland and Lester departed, the Cubs and Rockies played almost another whole game that was defined by offensive profligacy. When Tony Wolters, a .170 hitter on the year, came to the plate against Kyle Hendricks in the top of the 13th, the Cubs and Rockies had combined to go 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position. The Rockies eventually won because, well, someone had to.
Pivotal moment: In the eighth inning, Joe Maddon—the consummate tactical kibitzer who used 23 players in this game—sent Terrance Gore out to pinch-run for Anthony Rizzo. Gore came around to score the Cubs’ only run of the game, but Maddon entered extra innings with a cleanup hitter who’d managed one base hit in his entire MLB career to that date. The Cubs didn’t have a single hit over the final five innings.
Historical significance: This loss put a bow on the Cubs’ 2015-to-2018 run, which included three NLCS appearances and the famous World Series title. (Does the two-and-out 2020 playoff appearance count? Will anyone remember it? Who’s to say?) Plus, after Colorado got absolutely throttled in the NLDS, this game could end up being the answer to a trivia question in 20 years: What was the Rockies’ last postseason win?
12. 2015 AL
Astros 3, Yankees 0
Summary: Dallas Keuchel, pitching on short rest, shut down the vaunted Yankees for six innings. Colby Rasmus hit the game-winning home run in the second and celebrated later that night by dressing like a randy spacefaring wrestler.
Pivotal moment: Rasmus’s home run kicked off one of the most astounding playoff runs in MLB history. Over six postseason games in 2015, Rasmus hit .412/.583/1.176, with four home runs. Nobody remembers this—shirtless goggles photo notwithstanding—because the Astros jettisoned their erstwhile cleanup hitter before they won the World Series. But for one week, Colby Rasmus hit like Barry Bonds.
Historical significance: The Astros went on to lose a ludicrous five-game ALDS to Kansas City, but they returned to the playoffs again in 2017 and have now made the ALCS four years running. Speaking of controversy amid greatness, this was the final postseason game of Alex Rodriguez’s career. A-Rod went 0-for-4, winding down one of the most decorated playing careers in MLB history, and paving the way for him to become the guy who reads Stephen Covey books to Matt Vasgersian every Sunday night.
11. 2017 AL
Yankees 8, Twins 4
Summary: If this game had unfolded backward, it would’ve gone down as an all-time classic. What looked like a potential pitcher’s duel collapsed into a slugfest early, as Yankees starter Luis Severino allowed three runs in a third of an inning, and Ervin Santana and José Berríos gave up seven runs in the first five frames. But as was so often the case for the Yankees in this era, the big-name relievers came in and shut down the scoring late in the game.
Pivotal moment: In the bottom of the second, Byron Buxton made a spectacular leaping catch to preserve a 3-3 tie.
But in slamming against the wall, the injury-prone Buxton tweaked something in his back. He was able to stay in the game briefly, and drove in Minnesota’s final run, but was replaced by Zack Granite in the bottom of the fourth. The most memorable highlight of the night turned into a major what-if, as the Twins failed to mount a comeback without their most dynamic player.
Historical significance: This is loss no. 13 in Minnesota’s record 18-game postseason losing streak.
10. 2012 AL
Orioles 5, Rangers 1
Summary: The Rangers were heavy favorites in this contest, as the two-time defending AL champions were playing at home, with Yu Darvish on the mound, against itinerant junkballer Joe Saunders and the baffling Orioles. Darvish didn’t pitch badly, but Saunders matched him blow-for-blow, and in the sixth and seven innings, Baltimore broke through. The Rangers brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth, but Jim Johnson (remember that guy? He had 50 saves in back-to-back seasons!) retired David Murphy to send Texas home.
Pivotal moment: Saunders kept the ball on the deck in front of an exceptional defensive infield that included the perpetually underrated J.J. Hardy and a 20-year-old rookie named Manny Machado. That infield turned three double-plays in the first five innings, which kept Texas off the scoreboard.
Historical significance: This was the last official playoff hurrah for the Ron Washington–Josh Hamilton–era Rangers, as well as the introduction of an Orioles team that never put together an inspiring-looking roster but won more games than any other AL team from 2012 to 2016.
9. 2014 NL
Giants 8, Pirates 0
Summary: Madison Bumgarner kicked off his postseason reign of terror with a four-hit shutout, striking out 10 and walking just one. He recorded a game score of 88, which nobody has beaten in a playoff start since, and the Giants offense teed off against Edinson Vólquez and the Pittsburgh bullpen.
Still, one of the most lopsided wild-card games rates highly because of the role it played in the construction of the Bumgarner playoff legend.
Pivotal moment: The Pirates lost this game on August 1, 1989, when a son was born to Kevin and Debbie Bumgarner of Hickory, North Carolina.
Historical significance: Over the course of the 2014 postseason, Bumgarner allowed just six earned runs in 52 2/3 innings pitched, probably the most spectacular playoff run by any pitcher in MLB history.
8. 2015 NL
Cubs 4, Pirates 0
Summary: Nobody has beaten Bumgarner’s 88 game score from 2014 since, but Jake Arrieta is one of two pitchers who’ve tied it. Against the Pirates, Arrieta allowed five hits and no walks and struck out 11; 77 of his 113 pitches were strikes. Gerrit Cole wasn’t that bad, and the four Pirates relievers who followed him were excellent, but Pittsburgh never stood a chance. Arrieta could’ve given Pittsburgh five outs an inning and still thrown a shutout.
Pivotal moment: Only two Pittsburgh base runners even made it into scoring position all night, but when Starling Marte came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth, the game was still up for grabs. Rather than driving in one or more runs and potentially throwing off Arrieta’s schwerve, though, Marte grounded into a double-play and Pittsburgh never seriously threatened again.
Historical significance: While Bumgarner’s performance the year before was the start of a special run, Arrieta’s was the capstone for a spectacular 2015. In his final 20 starts that regular season, Arrieta had a 0.86 ERA and allowed an opponent batting line of just .150/.200/.210. Three of those 20 starts were complete-game shutouts—four of 21 if you count the wild-card game—including a no-hitter. Arrieta’s time on top was relatively brief, but it’s difficult to overstate how red-hot he was in late 2015.
7. 2013 NL
Pirates 6, Reds 2
Summary: No late-game drama in this game, just vibes.
One major worry about the one-game wild-card format was that a team could get knocked out of the playoffs without playing a home game. That was of particular concern for a team like Pittsburgh, which snapped a 20-year playoff drought in 2013 by finishing second in the NL Central. Fortunately the Pirates did get home-field advantage in this game, and they made the most of it. This has to be one of the loudest baseball crowds ever.
Pivotal moment: Say it with me: “Cue-to! Cue-to! Cue-to!”
There’s a mystical quality to how quickly it all unfolded, from the chant gaining steam, to Cueto dropping the ball, to Russell Martin’s home run. The rest of the game was pretty routine, but this single minute made the 2013 NL wild-card game an all-time classic.
Historical significance: The 2013-15 Pirates were really good, and they deserved better than a series of wild-card matchups against world-beating pitchers. Cueto was the only one they got to, and it’s going to be a while before the Pirates get a better moment than this one.
6. 2016 NL
Giants 3, Mets 0
Summary: Oh no, it’s that man again.
Another wild-card game, another Madison Bumgarner CGSHO. This one was more dramatic than most, because Bumgarner was facing off against 24-year-old Noah Syndergaard, who was pitching at his absolute peak. Syndergaard struck out 10 and allowed just two hits, but while Bumgarner went the distance, Syndergaard gave way to his bullpen after seven scoreless innings and 108 pitches.
Pivotal moment: It’s the classic backyard fantasy: Scoreless winner-take-all postseason game, men on base, ninth inning. And because this was the 2010s Giants, the pivotal three-run home run that won the game was hit not by one of the six All-Stars who suited up for San Francisco that night, but by itinerant part-timer Conor Gillaspie.
Historical significance: As it turns out, this was Bumgarner’s last piece of playoff heroics, and the last competitive gasp of the Even Year Magic core. Or so we thought, until said magic showed back up this year.
5. 2012 NL
Cardinals 6, Braves 3
Summary: The very first wild-card game—a tense back-and-forth battle between two teams with lots of star power that was decided in the eighth inning by one of the most controversial umpiring decisions of the 21st century. Then again, the Cardinals scored five runs off Kris Medlen—who’d allowed only 26 all year—so maybe they deserved to win, no matter how.
Pivotal moment: Bottom of the eighth inning, runners on first and second, one out, Andrelton Simmons at the plate representing the tying run in a 6-3 game.
And then we had an argument over where the infield ends, and what constitutes an infield fly. Had Pete Kozma’s lost pop-up turned into a single for Simmons—as most observers believed it should have—the Braves would have had the bases loaded and one out for pinch-hitter Brian McCann, then the top of the lineup. Instead, Atlanta manager Fredi González had a coronary, the Turner Field crowd cried out for the blood of the umpires, and the rally died two batters later. If there was any doubt about the wild-card game as an entertainment vehicle, this infield fly call erased it.
Historical significance: This was the first postseason outing for the post–Albert Pujols, post–Tony La Russa Cardinals, and while they beat top-seeded Washington in the NLDS, the story of that series was not the Cardinals’ win, but Stephen Strasburg’s controversial nonparticipation. On Atlanta’s end, the Braves have been a fairly regular postseason participant ever since, though this game was the last of Chipper Jones’s career.
4. 2017 NL
Diamondbacks 11, Rockies 8
Summary: An absolute Every Time I Die album of a baseball game. The Diamondbacks built a 6-0 lead, nearly blew it, and survived a chaotic ending in which at least one run was scored in each of the final five half-innings. Fourteen pitchers took part, and nine allowed at least one run.
Pivotal moment: Archie Bradley is going to be remembered for two things: His exquisite personal grooming, and a two-run triple in the seventh inning of this game.
Even letting Bradley hit was an act of desperation by first-year manager Torey Lovullo. Bradley had batted just four times all season, and with two outs, Lovullo was conceding a chance to extend the lead. Lovullo could have lifted Bradley for a pinch-hitter, but if he’d done so, Arizona wouldn’t have had enough trustworthy relievers to finish the game. Then Bradley dumped a ball into the gap and ran like hell, turning in the most memorable highlight of his career and most likely the biggest moment in Diamondbacks baseball in the past 10 years.
Historical significance: Relatively little. The 2017 Diamondbacks were an excellent team that got overshadowed by the Dodgers in the regular season and then atomized by the selfsame Dodgers in the NLDS. They never made another playoff run, so nobody remembers them. Also, Fernando Rodney recorded the game’s final out. Rodney has pitched in a joint-record three wild-card games, for three different teams, and was an unused substitute in a fourth.
3. 2016 AL
Blue Jays 5, Orioles 2 (11 innings)
Summary: The Zack Britton game. As the innings mounted in a tie game on the road, Orioles manager Buck Showalter called on six relief pitchers, but not his closer, who’d just come off one of the best relief seasons in MLB history. Showalter got away with it for a while, because Baltimore had a great bullpen in those days, but when Ubaldo Jiménez came in to face the top of a difficult Toronto lineup with one out in the 11th, things unraveled. In just five pitches, Jimenez allowed a single to Devon Travis, another single to Josh Donaldson, and a three-run walkoff home run to Edwin Encarnación.
The highlight is hilarious to watch, because the Orioles brought the infield in to prevent Travis from scoring on a ground ball, only to have Encarnación put Jiménez’s very first pitch through the back wall of the Rogers Centre.
Pivotal moment: Obviously the Orioles probably would’ve hung around longer with an inning or two from Britton, but you need to score to win. And after Manny Machado’s single with two outs in the sixth, the Orioles didn’t register a hit for the rest of the game. Still, Showalter probably should’ve used Britton at some point.
Historical significance: Showalter’s refusal to use his best pitcher was a significant moment in the evolution of the relief ace role; what Andrew Miller did later that postseason did even more to move the needle.
2. 2019 NL
Nationals 4, Brewers 3
Summary: Playoff baseball is about anxiety—tension, nerves, anticipation—but this game got downright scary near the end. Milwaukee, the top seed in the NL the previous year, jumped all over Max Scherzer in the early innings. And though Washington’s offense poked around here and there, it never found a weakness in Milwaukee’s bullpen.
But as Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz were cruising through the middle innings, Nats manager Dave Martinez—embarking on a master class of managerial guile that ended in his team’s first title—plucked no. 2 starter Stephen Strasburg from the bullpen to hold the fort. And he did so long enough for the Nationals to cobble together a two-out rally in the eighth, off all-world reliever Josh Hader of all people.
Pivotal moment: Hader didn’t look his best in this game; he hit Michael A. Taylor, allowed a Texas Leaguer to Ryan Zimmerman, and walked Anthony Rendon to load the bases with two outs. Juan Soto, then 20 years old and on the step of national celebrity, pinged a routine single to right field that should’ve scored Taylor and possibly pinch runner Andrew Stevenson.
But the ball squirmed away from rookie right fielder Trent Grisham and rolled halfway to the warning track, allowing Washington to not just to tie the game, but take a decisive lead.
Historical significance: This win kicked off one of the most exciting championship runs of the 21st century, in which Soto established himself as a star, Rendon earned himself $245 million, and Strasburg staked a claim as one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation. If Hader had had his good command, or Grisham hadn’t booted the ball, we would never have had the do-or-die comebacks in Game 5 of the NLDS against Los Angeles or Game 7 of the World Series against Houston.
1. 2014 AL
Royals 9, Athletics 8 (12 innings)
Summary: “Greatest game ever” is a subjective concept, balancing on-field action with historical import and other fuzzy ideas. It also helps when you see the game live, like I did with this one.
Twelve innings, five lead changes, 17 runs, 28 hits, four All-Star pitchers, all unfolding in front of a rabid Kauffman Stadium crowd that hadn’t seen a playoff game in person since 1985. The Royals’ win set off a Cinderella run to Game 7 of the World Series, as well as a slightly less Cinderella-y championship a year later, and validated the (at the time) wildly controversial James Shields trade.
This game also hinged on the greatest advance scouting coup of the decade. Royals scouts noticed that—as is common knowledge now but was not at the time—A’s starter Jon Lester and catcher Derek Norris were completely unable to control the running game. So Kansas City, the fastest team in the league, stole seven bases on eight attempts by eight different players. Those stolen bases led directly to runs in critical eighth-, ninth-, and 12th-inning comebacks.
Wild see-sawing action, contrasting styles of play, enormous stakes—I’m not sure what else you could want from a sporting event.
Pivotal moment: Obviously, Salvador Perez’s game-winning single—which capped a two-run rally after Oakland briefly took the lead in the top of the 12th.
But the Kansas City comeback started in the eighth inning, when the Royals brought eight men to the plate, scored three runs off Lester and Luke Gregerson, and did so without an extra-base hit. Three singles, two walks, a groundout, four stolen bases, a wild pitch, and a partridge in a pear tree—and had Gregerson not ended the inning with two strikeouts, it could’ve been worse.
Historical significance: The obvious historical legacy of this game is that it kickstarted the Royals’ run of back-to-back pennants. Less celebrated but just as important is the fact that the 2014 A’s were the best team in baseball at the halfway point, and they doubled down by adding Lester, Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija, Jonny Gomes, and Sam Fuld in July trades. Then they went directly in the toilet, falling from the no. 1 seed in the AL to playing on the road in the wild-card game. That offseason, they traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, and went back to building teams that were only capable of reaching the playoff bubble.
An earlier version of this piece misstated who was on the bases for Soto’s hit in the 2019 NL wild-card game.