Here’s what the Washington Nationals must do to win the 2019 NL Wild Card Game.
The Washington Nationals sat at 19-31 on May 23, the lowest they’d been below .500 in years. The first year without Bryce Harper seemed set to send the Nats on the path to a partial rebuild. Manager Dave Martinez’s job was being called for regularly, Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon were being shopped around by trade-market prognosticators and the team was derided for their decision to shell out for another nine-figure starting pitcher in Patrick Corbin without doing anything to address their bullpen. Remarkably, the Nationals saw their fortunes turn on a dime.
From their low point on May 23, the Nationals went on a 74-38 clip, a pace that projects out to 108 wins over a full 162-game season. While the Nationals dug themselves too big a hole to get back into the scrap for the NL East crown with Atlanta, they were never seriously threatened for the top Wild Card spot upon taking over. They will take on the Milwaukee Brewers, another hot team that has went scorched Earth on the National League after losing MVP Christian Yelich to a freak knee injury in early September.
On paper, the Nationals are the huge favorite to come out of the NL Wild Card Game victorious. They will send three-time Cy Young winner Scherzer out to take on untested Brandon Woodruff, with Stephen Strasburg and Corbin waiting in the wings. The Nationals also feature the second-best lineup in the NL against a very streaky Brewers lineup that is without its best player.
Games like this aren’t played on paper, however, and the Nationals will have to come out ready to play from the first pitch against a hot Brewers team. If the Nats manage to tick off all five of these keys to victory, they will advance easily to the NLDS where they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers.
5. Stay calm
It might not be all that surprising that in the first year without Bryce Harper the Nationals were able to shake off a dismal start and knife through the National League with great precision the rest of the way. For everything that makes him great, there is a downside that comes with featuring a player like Harper — extra pressure and scrutiny. The Nationals have looked much more relaxed and carefree this season.
For now, this is Anthony Rendon’s team, one of the most understated superstars in the game. He is a quiet leader, with none of the wildness that comes with Harper’s brand of play. Veterans like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton and Brian Dozier have made sure that youngsters like Juan Soto and Victor Robles are ready to go.
In past playoff meltdowns, the Nationals have looked like deer in headlights when the pressure ratcheted up, and the franchise is still looking for its first playoff series win. Manager Dave Martinez has proven to be the perfect balance of Dusty Baker’s player-friendly style and Matt Williams’ gruffer persona. Martinez has had his critics for his bullpen choices, but he has perfectly guided his team through the transition out of the Harper years and has them positioned to do damage in the NL playoff bracket.