First Pitch: What If the 2014 NL Wild Card Round Was a Best of Three Series?

“Time. Space. Reality. It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. Each a reflection of what could have been. Some heroes will rise, others will fall. And nothing will be the same. I am the Watcher. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me and dare to face the unknown, and ponder the question… What if?”

The year is 2014.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have just lost in the Wild Card round to the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner.

In your universe, the Giants advanced to the next round and eventually won the World Series.

In this universe, a simple change to a three-game playoff in the Wild Card round was enough to change the course of history.

Game one saw Edinson Volquez lose to Bumgarner and the Giants, putting the Pirates one game away from elimination. The Pirates countered with Charlie Morton in Game Two, making his second career playoff appearance.

Morton held the Giants to two runs in five innings of work, which was enough to allow for Russell Martin and Josh Harrison to give the Pirates a commanding lead with two- and three-run home runs, respectively.

With the season on the line, the Pirates turned to Francisco Liriano, who pitched a masterful Game Three, giving up one run in seven innings of work. A solo home run by Pedro Alvarez and a three hit game and an RBI by Travis Snider gave the Pirates a 2-1 advantage, allowing Tony Watson and Mark Melancon to close out the game and advance the Pirates in the post-season.

The Pirates went on to win in the division series, led by strong pitching from Liriano, Morton, Gerrit Cole, and Volquez. A key home run by Neil Walker in Game Four was enough to give the Pirates a 1-0 victory on a night when Morton pitched seven shutout innings, passing the ball to Watson and Melancon to finish off the game, and give the Pirates a 3-1 series victory.

Moving on to the NLCS, the Pirates took on the St. Louis Cardinals. The regular season saw the Pirates go 8-11 against St. Louis, although the Pirates outscored the Cardinals 69-62 in the season series. This time, the advantage of scoring more runs led to a much more favorable outcome for Pittsburgh.

A dominant piggyback performance in game five by Jeff Locke and Vance Worley was enough to bring the Pirates back in the series, down three games to two. Morton took the mound for game six, delivering another solid start, with two runs in five innings of work. John Holdzkom, Jared Hughes, and Justin Wilson combined in the seventh inning to get the ball to Melancon and Watson, with the game tied 2-2.

A rare off night by Melancon put the Pirates down 4-2, on the brink of elimination heading into the bottom of the ninth. That’s when Andrew McCutchen came alive, hitting a three-run home run with two outs, sending the Pirates to within one game of the World Series.

McCutchen stayed hot in game seven, starting things off with a two-run home run, and setting the tone for the Pirates’ offense. Gerrit Cole gave up four runs in six innings, but the Pirates also got home runs from Starling Marte and rookie Gregory Polanco, and won the deciding game 8-5, sending them to the World Series to face the Kansas City Royals.

The World Series was a ratings disaster for Major League Baseball, despite the Pirates taking the series in seven games, throwing every remaining starting pitcher they had at the Royals in the deciding game. Gaby Sanchez came up the unlikely hero with a two-run home run, and McCutchen added an RBI of his own, scoring Marte. Francisco Liriano closed out the game with two shutout innings, giving the Pirates a 3-2 victory and a World Series title for the first time in 35 years.

That 2014 Pirates team mostly stayed together, going to the World Series again in 2015, but losing to the Royals this time around. After two straight World Series games featuring small market teams, Major League Baseball changed the entire league structure, setting up divisions based on market size to ensure that only one of the Pirates or Royals could ever make the playoffs in any given year.

The 2014 Pirates players went on to have great careers. Charlie Morton became a playoff hero for years to come, into his mid-30s. Gerrit Cole became the highest paid pitcher in the game of baseball. Tony Watson and Mark Melancon continued to be dominant closers for years to come. Josh Harrison and Starling Marte joined up again in the Bay area, only this time playing for San Francisco.

The Giants pursued Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington after the 2015 season, and with nothing to prove in Pittsburgh, Huntington left for the new challenge. He eventually signed Andrew McCutchen, and acquired Harrison and Marte to re-create the 2014-15 magic in 2021.

The opponent for the Giants in the Wild Card series in 2021 in this alternate universe? None other than the Ben Cherington-led Pittsburgh Pirates, led by a rotation of Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and rookie pitcher Shane Baz…

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