Tribe fans had an extra reason to celebrate on Tuesday night as the Colorado Rockies pulled off a dramatic 2-1 win in 13 innings over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, with former Indians prospect Tony Wolters at the center of the epic game-winning hit to end a marathon National League Wild Card contest.
The run of three straight National League Championship Series appearances for the Cubs came to a crashing and shocking halt after the hometown club lost on back-to-back days of October baseball to be eliminated from the postseason on the first official day of action. The Cubs hosted the rival Brewers in a National League Central tie-breaker on Monday, but Milwaukee came away with a 3-1 upset win at Wrigley Field to earn the division title. The loss forced the Cubs into the NL Wild Card game against the Rockies, which had lost its own game #163 at Los Angeles against the Dodgers on Monday evening.
The Rockies, led by former Tribe pitcher Bud Black, took a lead three batters into the game on a sacrifice fly by Nolan Arenado that scored Charlie Blackmon after his walk and a double into the ivy by DJ LeMahieu. Kyle Freeland, a 25-year-old left-hander coming off of a 17-7 record with a 2.85 ERA in the regular season, worked six and two-thirds shutout innings before the Cubs tied the game with two down in the bottom of the eighth off of Adam Ottavino on an RBI-double by Javier Baez.
Kyle Hendricks, who came on for the final two batters of the 12th, returned to the mound for the Cubs in the 13th and retired LeMahieu and Arenado. Trevor Story singled on the next pitch and moved to third on a base hit by Gerardo Parra. Wolters, who came on in the bottom of the 12th as part of a double-switch, fell behind on back-to-back changeups before a fastball up and out of the zone. The reserve backstop reached out for the 1-2 pitch and bounced the offering off of the edge of the mound and into center field, scoring Story with the go-ahead run.
Scott Oberg, who struck out the only batter that he faced in the bottom of the 12th, struck out the side in order in the 13th to eliminate the Cubs while becoming one of just three pitchers in Major League history to face four batters in a postseason game and strike out all four.
The Rockies advanced beyond the Wild Card round for the first time since 2009 and just the fourth time in franchise history. They lost in the one-game play-in last season to the Arizona Diamondbacks for an early exit.
Wolters was about the unlikeliest of heroes possible in the contest, which just adds to the allure of the game of baseball. The left-handed hitting utility man, who has logged innings with the Rockies at catcher, second and third base, shortstop, and left field in three seasons in Mile High, was on the field in crunch time in one of the biggest games in the 26-year history of the Rockies organization and has now become a legend for the club. A career .226 hitter who batted just .170 this season in 74 games with Colorado, Wolters was marred in an 0-for-15 skid at the plate (his third hitless streak of the year that length or longer) and his trip into the batter’s box in the 13th marked the first postseason plate appearance of his career.
With one hit, he knocked out the same Cubs club that crushed his former team’s title hopes in 2016, the same year that the Tribe dropped him from the 40-man in a roster crunch at the end of spring training.
Wolters was a third round pick by the Indians in the 2010 draft out of Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, California, opting to forgo a full ride to the nearby University of San Diego to begin a pro baseball career. He was the team’s third overall selection that draft, following fifth overall pick Drew Pomeranz and second rounder LeVon Washington, a junior college outfielder from Florida. The class proved not to be one of the finer ones in Tribe history, as just 12 players have reached the Majors of the 50 selected (nine of whom did not sign with the Indians after their selection and were later drafted and reached the Majors elsewhere).
A shortstop at the time of his selection and a member of the 18U USA baseball team, Wolters was a top ten prospect in the Indians organization from the start. He was ranked eighth overall in 2011 and seventh the following year by Baseball America.
He got a brief taste test of the pro game in the Arizona League, appearing in five games after signing his pro contract in 2010, but he got a heavier 69-game sample size in 2011, when he put up a .292/.385/.363 slash at short-season Mahoning Valley, stealing 19 bases and getting hit by 11 pitches over the course of the year while making the first and only All-Star team of his career to date.
He hit .260 in 2012 at High-A Carolina, skipping over the Class-A level while splitting the year almost evenly between shortstop and second base, adding in more work on the other half of the keystone to help accommodate the team’s addition of 2011 first round draft pick Francisco Lindor. Wolters posted career highs in games (125), hits (126), doubles (30), triples (8), homers (8), and RBI (58).
“All I wanted to do was play baseball. It is the game I love,” said Wolters to Did The Tribe Win Last Night in 2012. “When the Indians drafted me, I was really excited and, deep down, I just really wanted to go and play. I’m good at school, but it’s not my favorite thing. Baseball is my number one. I had [family’s] support, so I decided to go play for the Cleveland Indians and I have no regrets. It’s a great organization to play for and I’ve learned so much ever since I’ve gotten drafted.”
He returned to the Mudcats roster for 80 more games of work the following season, but he did so in the new role of catcher, as organization depth up the middle was strong and was notably weak behind the plate. He also spent the end of the 2013 season working in the Arizona Fall League for the first of two straight seasons there.
“[Terry Francona] brought it up in spring training, and asked me to try it out,” Wolters shared with DTTWLN in an April 2014 interview. “I took a day and I thought, ‘I have to do this. He’s seen so much baseball, he knows what he’s talking about.’ I was scared at the beginning, but as it went on I started to fall in love with the position. It went well, and it’s going well. I’m having pitchers on the staff, spring training guys, always picking and picking telling me what to work on and things that I’m doing good. It can’t go better than it has been. I’m enjoying it.”
Wolters was promoted to the Double-A Akron RubberDucks for the 2014 season, but the offensive side of his game lacked both the strong average and the base stealing ability that he had shown in his early days in the organization. He worked in 94 games for the ‘Ducks, hitting .249 with 15 doubles, two triples, one homer, and 34 RBI. After his stint with Peoria in the fall league, his contract was purchased by the Indians on November 20 and he was formally added to the 40-man roster as the club protected what little catching depth it had available on the farm.
Wolters spent a tough second season at Akron in 2015, hitting just .209 with two homers and 17 RBI in 65 games, but he did show some potential behind the plate, throwing out 49% of would-be base stealers that year to hold a career 40% caught stealing rate at the end of the campaign.
He came to camp with the Indians in 2016, but with the emergence of Yan Gomes (acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in November of 2012) as a Silver Slugger and strong defender behind the plate, Roberto Perez serving as a viable backup, and top prospect Francisco Mejia (now suiting up against the Rockies in the NL West with the San Diego Padres) waiting in the wings, Wolters was pinched from the roster at the end of spring training in 2016 to make room for reliever Tommy Hunter.
The Rockies claimed Wolters off of waivers, hoping to use the unique skill set of being able to play both catcher and the middle infield spots. He spent nearly all of 2016 with the Rockies, hitting .259 in 71 games (with two games at Triple-A Albuquerque) with 15 doubles, three homers, and 30 RBI. He appeared in a career-high 83 games last season, batting .240 with eight doubles and 16 RBI, while also playing in 14 games at Albuquerque. In his first full season in the Majors without a trip to the minors this year, he put up a .170/.292/.286 slash with four doubles, four triples, three homers, and 27 RBI in 74 games.
Wolters has found a home and a role in the DH-less, double-switch heavy NL as a valuable roster piece for Black. Now, the versatile defender can add Rockies folk legend to his wide ranging skill set.
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images