WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto reclined with his arms in his hoodie four hours before the game, relaxed and hopeful.
He thought Tuesday would be “amazing,” joked about his improving English and looked as concerned about the evening’s pending pressure as a cat zonked out in the sun. His mom fed him earlier in the day, taking the early lead for the best part of Tuesday.
Just before 11 p.m., Soto was at the plate in a tussle with the high fastballs and flowing locks of Josh Hader. The bases were loaded by a bit of erraticism, luck and fear. Michael A. Taylor was hit by a pitch. Ryan Zimmerman blooped a broken-bat single into center field. Anthony Rendon walked on a 3-2 pitch.
Which brought Soto to the plate in a harsh lefty-lefty matchup against Hader. He pulled a 95-mph fastball to right field, enough on its own to score two runs and tie the game. Right fielder Trent Grisham overran the hit, allowing the go-ahead run to come in. Single, E-9, elation.
Daniel Hudson trotted in and closed the ninth inning after the game turned on its head. Washington’s dormant offense was rescued by one swing from Soto. The Nationals won the Wild-Card Game, 4-3, to advance to the National League Division Series against the heavyweight Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, stalling any postseason angst for another week.
“Just to win and move on, we haven’t done that yet,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “We always kind of downplayed it. I think I would be lying if I said it doesn’t feel good to do this. We have a lot of work left to do. By no means are we satisfied, but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say this didn’t feel good.”
Most of the night operated with a familiar feeling for do-or-die games in Nationals Park. Deflation promptly replaced Max Scherzer’s gassed-up opening appearance on the mound. He unleashed 99-mph fastballs from the start. They had trouble finding a home in the strike zone. Trent Grisham walked, then an immediate dose of strategy entered.
Milwaukee led the National League in walks. However, it was facing Scherzer, a known strike-throwing machine who squashes hitters following an 0-1 count. They held a .577 OPS against him this season following such counts. Several teams, no matter previous M.O., decide to change because of it. The Brewers included.
Yasmani Grandal swung at the first pitch, a 98-mph fastball and hit it into the Nationals’ bullpen. In the shortest amount of time possible, Milwaukee led, 2-0, dropping a team trying to crawl out of the crab bucket all season into another hole.
Scherzer recovered to handle the next three batters. He allowed a home run to Eric Thames open the second inning, cruised through the third, managed the fourth and dragged himself through the fifth. When he was done after five innings, he had allowed three earned runs on 77 pitches and left with another sigh-worthy marker on his postseason ledger.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff sizzled 99-mph fastballs across the top of the strike zone. A Howie Kendrick ground ball to left delivered the first hit. Trea Turner’s solo home run in the third inning provided a run. Woodruff walked off the mound after four innings and allowing just a run. He out-pitched Scherzer.
Stephen Strasburg replaced Scherzer to start the sixth. He finished it in eight pitches. A 1-2-3 seventh inning followed a burn through the eighth alongside emphatic second-guessing. Among the pregame debates was who would start with life after 162 games dwindling to a must-win nine innings. There was little internal debate. The Nationals long planned on Scherzer making the start and bringing Strasburg in to relieve him, if necessary. That choice will forever be debated.
“I really came out with an intensity today, just gave everything I had,” Scherzer said. “It was an emotional game. I knew it was going to be an emotional game. I left everything I had on the field. Whatever pitch [Kurt Suzuki] commanded, I was going to go with. We play so well together. Whatever he wanted, we’re going to do.
“I just felt like went in and layed everything on the line. [Thames] hit a very good pitch. I threw a backdoor curveball down in the zone and he hit it for a homer. Just got to tip your hat and move on. I talked to [Suzuki] after that inning, and he was like, don’t get mad at that pitch. Don’t get mad. You had the right thought, just keep doing your thing…just believe in the team and we’ll come back and win.”
“Once I was going to go in there, I was going to go for multiple innings,” Strasburg said. “The biggest thing was probably he knew that I needed to get more time than other guys. They already told me I was going to come in for a clean inning. So I was able to get my routine in, get the necessary amount of throws on the bullpen mound and be ready to go.”
Strasburg ended up with the win because of Soto’s clutch hit. A deep fly ball squeezed by Victor Robles closed the game, setting off fireworks and the crowd. Players streamed into the middle of the diamond amid the smoke, reliever, stunned, thankful, all at once. Bench coach Chip Hale walked out with his arm around Davey Martinez. Friends and family soon joined the on-field celebration while “You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles)” by Hot Chocolate played.
The chaos re-entered the clubhouse for the second time in a week. Familiar songs played, Sean Doolittle blazed his lightsaber, Brian Dozier and Yan Gomes lost their shirts. Principle owner Mark Lerner stood on the outskirts and smiled at the scene which seemed unlikely less than an hour prior. They had advanced. Finally. It’s on to L.A.
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