Washington Nationals

Nationals finally dispel ghosts of postseasons past

Juan Soto’s bases-clearing single in the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday erased decades of playoff futility for the Nationals and sent them on to the NLDS.

For seven-and-two-thirds innings on Tuesday night the Milwaukee Brewers’ game plan was working perfectly. Juan Soto, meanwhile, looked every bit like the 20-year-old in his first postseason game. But this is October baseball, where magical things can happen.

Soto’s single off Brewers lefty reliever Josh Hader with two outs in the eighth inning drove in three runs and led the Washington Nationals to a come-from-behind 4-3 Wild Card game victory over the Brewers at Nationals Park, sending the Nationals on to a postseason date with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was a shellshock to the Brewers, who looked to have the game in hand playing their brand of baseball. Starter Brandon Woodruff pitched four solid innings, giving up just two hits including a solo home run by Trea Turner in the third inning. The Brewers offense struck early against the Nationals starter, three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, with Yasmani Grandal hitting a two-run home run in the first and Eric Thames adding a solo shot in the second to give Milwaukee a 3-0 lead.

From there it was the job of the Brewers bullpen to hold it down, and for three innings Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz did just that. Pomeranz retired all six batters he faced, turning the ball over to Hader, the fireball-throwing lefty who struck out more than 16 per nine innings this season.

Hader struck out Victor Robles to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning before hitting pinch-hitter Michael A. Taylor on a 3-2 fastball that may have hit Taylor’s bat first. Turner struck out on a 97 m.p.h. fastball, bringing up Ryan Zimmerman with two outs. Zimmerman’s bat was shattered on a 2-1 fastball on the inside corner, but the ball fell harmlessly into center field for a hit. That brought up Anthony Rendon, the Nationals MVP candidate who led the NL with 126 RBI this season.

Rendon saw all fastballs from Hader, working a 3-2 count. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was high, and Rendon walked to first base to load the bases for Soto. The emerging superstar who isn’t even old enough to drink the celebratory champagne that will flow in the Nationals clubhouse didn’t disappoint. He hit another Hader fastball to right field for a single, scoring both Taylor and pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson. But Brewers right-fielder Trent Grisham, filling in for the injured Christian Yelich, allowed the ball to go under his glove and slipped as he went back to retrieve it. The error allowed Rendon to come home with the go-ahead run. Before Soto’s heroics, Hader had given up just one single to a left-handed batter all season.

Reliever Daniel Hudson, acquired in a deadline-day trade from Toronto, got the final three outs, with Ben Gamel flying out to Robles in center to end the game and with it nearly 40 years of Nationals playoff frustration.

The Nationals hadn’t won a postseason series since the 1981 NLDS when they were the Montreal Expos. Since that time, the franchise had lost five straight series, four in the last eight seasons. They were 0-4 in winner-take-all games. In 2012, the club’s first playoff appearance in Washington, they allowed four runs in the ninth inning to lose Game 5 of the NLDS to St. Louis. In 2016, they took a 2-1 series lead against the Dodgers but lost the next two games, each by one run.

Dating back to the 1981 NLCS, when Rick Monday broke the hearts of fans in Montreal, the Nationals franchise had lost five straight games when they had the chance to close out a series.

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But that’s all history now, thanks in large part to a player who wasn’t around for all the postseason failures of years past. They now move on to face the Dodgers, where so many Nationals/Expos dreams have been crushed before. With what happened on Tuesday, though, these Nationals are ready to write their own history.

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