Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2019

Nationals Beat Their Demons, And The Brewers

It didn’t happen all at once. Rather, the enthusiasm and accompanying crowd noise seeped out of Nationals Park slowly but steadily Tuesday night, like a Goodyear that’s picked up a little 2-penny nail gradually deflating as it rolls along the Beltway that circumnavigates our nation’s capital. To be certain, there were those among the nearly 43,000 fans comprising the sea of red that filled the stadium’s three decks who tried hard to wave their rally towels and shout their support for the home team as this year’s National League Wild Card Game played out. But as the early innings became the middle frames and then turned to that point in the game where the remaining outs start to be counted down, more and more of their neighbors grew quiet and pensive.

After all, they had been tortured in like fashion before. This was Washington’s fifth trip to the postseason in the past eight years, and each of the previous forays into October had ended in disappointment, often in excruciating fashion. The first, in 2012, set the tone for what played out again and again at the end of subsequent seasons. The Nationals rallied from a two games to one deficit in the NL Division Series, forcing a Game Five against the Cardinals with a dramatic 2-1 walk off win in Game Four. One night later, in front of a raucous home crowd, Washington leapt out to an early lead and then held on, taking a 7-5 advantage to the 9th inning. The visitors were soon down to their final out with one runner on, when the game turned in stunning fashion. Two walks and a pair of two-run singles later, St. Louis had a 9-7 edge and was on its way to the NLCS, even as fans who only minutes before had begun to celebrate looked on in stunned silence.

Two years later it was the Giants turning hope to despair for Nats fans, followed by the Dodgers in 2016 and the Cubs in 2017. Four trips to the NLDS and still Washington was looking for its first series victory. Even more dispiriting, three of the series had ended with the visiting team celebrating at Nationals Park, where Washington had lost eight of eleven postseason contests.

It was thus entirely understandable if doubt gnawed at many in the full house when the Milwaukee Brewers led 2-0 after Washington starter Max Scherzer had thrown just seven pitches. Trent Grisham drew a leadoff walk on a full count, then Yasmani Grandal lined the first pitch he saw into the Nationals bullpen in right field. Eric Thames followed with another long ball to lead off the second as Scherzer continued to labor. National’s shortstop Trea Turner countered with a solo home run of his own in the bottom of the 3rd, getting Washington on the board.

There the score stayed, 3-1 in favor of Milwaukee, even as the innings began to click away. After his ragged start Scherzer settled down and held the Brewers in check through five frames, then Stephen Strasburg came on in the first relief appearance of his career and fired three shutout innings. But Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell countered with Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter, and Drew Pomeranz, who together shut down the Nationals’ offense through the 7th. Other than Turner’s home run Washington batters managed only two singles off the trio of Milwaukee hurlers.

That allowed Counsell to turn to flamethrowing closer Josh Hader in the bottom of the 8th, with the Nationals just six outs away from another playoff disappointment. One batter later the counter ticked down to five, as Victor Robles went down swinging. When Hader hit Michael Taylor on the hand to put a runner on first, the red-clad thousands clung to fading hope. But there was little to stop a sense of dread from spreading through the stands like a virus when Turner fanned for the second out.

Then in the time it took Hader to throw thirteen pitches to three batters, everything changed. The frustrations of postseasons past were washed away, and Nationals fans discovered that October baseball can mean something other than disappointment. Ryan Zimmerman flared a broken-bat single to center, sending Taylor to third. Anthony Rendon then worked a walk to load the bases. That brought up 20-year-old Juan Soto, runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, who was even better at the plate this season. He lined Hader’s third offering to right for a clean single. Even as Brewers right-fielder Grisham charged the ball, it was clear that Soto had likely tied the game. That was until Grisham put his glove down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped beneath it, headed for the right field fence. By the time he could wheel and retrieve it Soto’s liner had cleared the bases, giving the Nationals a lead they would carry into the 9th and ultimately to a meeting with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.

In that moment, as energy and roars returned to Nationals Park, fans of the Great Game who may not have followed Washington closely this season saw the resilience that has come to symbolize the team. On May 23rd, after dropping a 6-4 decision to the New York Mets, Washington was twelve games under .500 at 19-31, just a game and one-half ahead of Miami and the NL East cellar. It would have been easy to give up on the year, to conclude that the departure of Bryce Harper had robbed the Nationals of the confidence needed to contend. But after that date the Nationals went 74-38, a record that matched the Dodgers and was only a half-game behind the Astros for best in the majors. While the denizens of Chavez Ravine will be favored in the next round, those who call Dodger Stadium home should take nothing for granted.

When Grisham finally retrieved Soto’s hit and fired the ball in, the Brewers managed to catch the young Nationals hero in a rundown. But by that time the go-ahead run had been plated. As TBS’s announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. rightly said, “they tag him out but nobody in this joint cares!” What they cared about was something that had been far too long coming to Nationals Park – the joy of winning in the postseason and advancing to the next round. It didn’t happen all at once Tuesday night. Until it did.

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