MLB Postseason

NL Wild Card preview: Why the Brewers and Nationals will — or won’t — win

The 2019 MLB postseason begins on Tuesday with the Nationals hosting the Brewers at Nationals Park for the NL Wild Card game at 8:08 p.m. EST.

After 162 games, the season for the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers comes down to a winner-take-all matchup on Tuesday at Nationals Park.

The Nationals and Brewers got here in different ways. The Nationals have a deep starting rotation, led by Tuesday’s starter Max Scherzer. The Brewers, meanwhile, get teams out with a plethora of relievers making the trek to the mound from the bullpen.

Expect to see the same thing on Tuesday night. Opposing Scherzer will be Brandon Woodruff, who’s only lasted two innings in each of his last two starts. But that’s exactly the formula that got Milwaukee to the postseason for the second straight season.

Each team has an MVP candidate, but only one will be on the field on Tuesday. The Nationals’ Anthony Rendon, in the final year of his contract, has played himself into a big payday with a career season at the age of 29. Milwaukee, though, is without Christian Yelich after the reigning MVP fractured his knee in a game against Miami earlier in September.

The keys to each team winning are different, but the goal is the same: avoid going home after just one postseason game. Here’s what each team needs to do to win on Tuesday.

Milwaukee Brewers

Why they will win:

Who needs the reigning National League MVP? The Milwaukee Brewers certainly don’t. Since Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a fractured kneecap on Sept. 10, the Brewers have gone 13-5 and enter the postseason as one of the hottest teams in baseball.

It’s a run reminiscent of last season, when Milwaukee ended the regular season by winning eight straight, and 10 of 11, including a tiebreaker against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. They went on to reach a game away from the World Series, losing the NLCS to the Dodgers. In 2019, the Brewers’ formula for success has been the same: ride a deep bullpen to prioritize every out.

In September, 20 different pitchers threw at least three innings for the Brewers. Only Jordan Lyles, though, averaged at least five innings per appearance. Without a dominant starter, the Brewers are going with Brandon Woodruff on Tuesday and expect him to last just once through the Nationals batting order. The Brewers went 18-4 in games Woodruff appeared in. Since coming off the IL on Sept. 17, he hasn’t given up a run in four innings over two starts.

After Woodruff will come Drew Pomeranz, with a 2.39 ERA in 26 games for Milwaukee after being acquired at the deadline, and Lyles, who has a 2.45 ERA with the Brewers. Finally, the Brewers have hard-throwing left-hander Josh Hader, who struck out 138 batters in only 75.2 innings.

The rest of the batting order has picked up the production lost with Yelich’s injury. Four players other than Yelich hit at least 22 home runs this season, while rookie second baseman Keston Hiura added 19 in just 84 games.

Manager Craig Counsell has guided the Brewers to the postseason for the second straight year and has somehow found a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Why they won’t:

Records can be deceiving, and that’s the case with the Brewers hot streak to end the regular season. Besides a three-game series against the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals, the Brewers played the Marlins, Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies, all non-playoff teams. They didn’t exactly end the year on a high note, either, twice blowing a ninth-inning lead and losing in extra innings to the Rockies.

The Brewers’ success is dependent on their bullpen, but that group hasn’t been as good as they were a year ago. They ranked 17th in the league in ERA; in 2018, they finished fifth. Counsell also won’t have the extended roster to work with in the playoffs as he did in September.

Milwaukee also has other injury issues other than Yelich. Lorenzo Cain hurt his knee sliding into home plate against the Rockies in the second-last game of the season and is questionable to be in the lineup on Tuesday.

Despite winning 89 games and finishing within two games of the Cardinals in the division, the Brewers still only outscored their opponents by three runs over the course of the season. That’s due largely to a 27-18 record in one-run games. And with their starting pitchers leaving so early into games, they rely on several pitchers to have their best stuff on any given night. If even one reliever doesn’t have it that day, the Brewers are in trouble.

Washington Nationals

Why they will win:

The Nationals have something the Brewers don’t: not just one, but three dominant starting pitchers. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer gets the start on Tuesday, with Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin available out of the bullpen if needed.

Scherzer has been shaky recently, with an ERA of more than five in September, but he still had his usual great season. His 2.92 ERA was sixth in the NL, while he led the league in strikeouts per nine innings. He’s historically shut down the Brewers’ best hitters. Cain is 0-15 with seven strikeouts in his career against Scherzer, while Mike Moustakas is 6-36 (.167) with one home run.

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper to the Phillies in free agency before the year began, but they didn’t seem to miss him. In his absence, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon have emerged as two of the best hitters in the league. Soto, who doesn’t turn 21 until Oct. 25, hit 34 home runs and drove in 110 this season. His .949 OPS was higher than Harper had in all but two seasons in Washington. Rendon, meanwhile, set career highs with 34 home runs and 126 RBI, the most in the NL, and finished third behind Yelich and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger with a 1.010 OPS.

The Brewers may have finished the year strong, but the Nationals have had their own hot streak that’s lasted the better part of four months. Since beginning the year 19-31, the Nationals have gone 74-38 since May 23, tied with the Dodgers for best in the NL. They also have plenty of postseason experience as they will be making their fifth appearance in the last eight years.

Why they won’t:

If the Wild Card game comes down to a bullpen matchup, the Nationals are in trouble. Washington’s bullpen was the worst in baseball this season, finishing with a 5.66 ERA. Sean Doolittle, a two-time All-Star who led the club with 29 saves, had a 4.05 ERA, the worst mark of his career. He’s been better as of late, though, with a 2.25 ERA in nine games since missing two weeks with right knee tendinitis at the end of August.

Scherzer, for all the success he’s had in the regular season, hasn’t been able to match it in October. He hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2013 ALDS while with the Detroit Tigers. In seven games since, he’s 0-4 with a 3.83 ERA. He gave up four runs — two of them earned — in one inning in his last appearance, a win-or-go-home Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cubs in 2017.

Rendon’s production has also dipped considerably over the last month of the season. In 18 games between Aug. 11-31, he hit .440 and vaulted himself in MVP consideration. In September, though, he hit only .239 with three home runs.

Washington will need Scherzer and Rendon to erase their recent history if they hope to win on Tuesday. If they don’t, it will mean another disappointing October in the nation’s capital. In each of their previous four appearances, the Nationals failed to win a series.

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