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Nationals Get Playoff Monkey off Their Back with Late Rally in NL Wild Card Game

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 2, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with his teammates after defeating the Milwaukee Brewers with a score 4 to 3 in the National League Wild Card game at Nationals Park on October 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals are moving on to the National League Division Series after pulling off the kind of feat they aren't usually known for.

A clutch win. In October. And in an elimination game, no less.

Specifically, the magic happened in the bottom of the eighth inning during the Nats' 4-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card Game at Nationals Park on Tuesday night.

Juan Soto's two-out, bases-loaded single off Josh Hader probably would have been good enough to tie the game on its own, but a misplay by right fielder Trent Grisham allowed all three runs to score. Just like that, Milwaukee's 3-1 lead went poof.

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This was only night one of the #postseason. October baseball is THE BEST. #WePlayLoud https://t.co/w5eTJNtndy

The sheer impact of the 20-year-old Soto's fateful base hit can't be understated. 

Heck, even noting that it rescued Washington's win probability from the depths isn't giving it proper credit. According to Rany Jazayerli, who covers baseball for The Ringer and The Athletic, there's one measure by which Soto's knock ranks among the most important in all of Major League Baseball history:

Rany Jazayerli @jazayerli

Juan Soto's bases-clearer increased the Nats' odds of winning this round by .610. By series win probability added, that's the 3rd-biggest play in major league history. Only Hal Smith's 3-run homer in 1960 WS Game 7 and Francisco Cabrera's walkoff in the 1992 NLCS rank higher.

"How about him? He's done it all year," Nats manager Dave Martinez said of the young outfielder, according to MLB.com's Jamal Collier. "These guys are relentless, and he's one of them. ... He loves big moments, and that was a big moment."

Pretty much right up until said moment, the NL Wild Card Game looked like it was doomed to be just the latest chapter in the Nationals' story of postseason misery.

They only won a single postseason series in their years as the Montreal Expos between 1969 and 2004, and their fortunes haven't improved since moving to Washington in 2005. They lost in the NLDS in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, including three times in a winner-take-all Game 5.

The Nationals could have won any of those four series. Perhaps if they hadn't shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012. Or if Matt Williams had made better decisions from the manager's chair in 2014. For that matter, ditto for Dusty Baker in 2016 and 2017.

As if on cue, it seemed like a questionable call would also derail the Nationals on Tuesday night. 

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals walks back to the dugout after closing out the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card game at Nationals Park on October 01, 2019 in Washington,
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The club's decision to start Max Scherzer over Stephen Strasburg was the right choice based on the former's track record, but not so much in light of how the two had been trending recently.

After sitting out most of July and August with a bad back, Scherzer returned to post a 4.74 ERA and surrender eight home runs in his final seven starts of the regular season. For his part, Strasburg went into October hot off a 2.40 ERA over a string of 10 starts.

Rather than revert to the form that's netted him three Cy Young Awards and seven All-Star nods, Scherzer immediately served up three runs on homers by Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames in the first two innings. He later had to get out of a jam of his own making in the fifth.

Strasburg followed with three shutout innings in his first major league relief appearance, yet it seemed to be too little, too late. Apart from a Trea Turner homer in the third, Nats hitters simply couldn't get anything going against Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz.

Once Hader entered in the eighth, Washington's latest playoff flop seemed pretty well finalized. He is, after all, a guy who's made two All-Star teams and racked up 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings as a multi-inning relief ace over the last two seasons. 

But then again, perhaps nobody should be surprised this particular Nationals team refused to echo the October whimpers of previous iterations.

Though these Nationals won "only" 93 games all season, they won an MLB-high-tying 74 of their games after May 24. In other words, they were arguably the best team in baseball after getting a slow start out of their system.

For that feat, nothing was more important than a starting rotation—notably led by Scherzer, Strasburg and fellow ace Patrick Corbin—that carried the load with a 3.36 ERA. But Nats hitters did their part by producing nearly six runs per game.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after hitting a single to right field to score 3 runs off of an error by Trent Grisham #2 of the Milwaukee Brewers during the eighth inning in the National League Wild Card
Will Newton/Getty Images

That happened in part because they were just plain clutch, no matter one's preferred measurement of the notion:

In the context of these numbers, Soto's Twitter-breaking hit was less of a miracle and more of a variation on a familiar theme.

Whatever the case, the Nationals must not lose sight of the fact they still technically haven't won a postseason series as a resident of the nation's capital. Likewise, they must not underestimate the challenge that now lies ahead in the NLDS.

Said challenge is otherwise known as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who built on back-to-back trips to the World Series with 106 wins in this year's regular season. All they did to earn those wins was lead the National League in both runs scored and runs allowed per game.

However, the Dodgers, who'll host Game 1 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, might be the one team left standing whose bullpen is just as unreliable as Washington's. And while NL MVP favorite Cody Bellinger would seem to be the best player on either team, his star has actually been fading on a regular basis since his otherworldly April.

This is not to say it will be easy for the Nationals to slay the National League's mightiest dragon. But after slaying some of their October demons on Tuesday, they might just be up for it.

               

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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