Nationals

How one Juan Soto swing changed the Nationals' Wild Card win probability entirely

Nationals

For much of Tuesday's National League Wild Card contest, things looked very similar to the postseason horrors from years past for the Nationals.

Tuesday marked the first time the Nationals played in the one-game Wild Card, a format that the MLB adopted in 2012 that added a fifth playoff team in each league. But it wasn't the first time this team has faced a win-or-go-home scenario, as it was the club's fourth time playing in a postseason winner-take-all game since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington, D.C.

In their first three games of said situation, the Nationals were 0-3. The sting from 2012, 2016, and 2017 still feels fresh.

Early on, things seemed to be no different this time around as well. Nationals ace Max Scherzer walked Brewers leadoff hitter Trent Grisham to open the game. Next came Yasmani Grandal, who sent a Scherzer fastball into the Nationals bullpen for an early Brewers 2-0 lead. 

Just two batters into the game, the Nationals win probability dropped to 31 percent, according to Fangraphs. An Eric Thames home run an inning later dropped Washington's win probability to just 21 percent. 

But after a rocky pair of innings, Scherzer would settle in. A home run from Trea Turner in the third inning slimmed Milwaukee's lead from 3-1, but Washington still had an uphill battle to climb. Even after the big fly, Fangraphs still only put Washington's chance of winning at 28 percent. 

 

The early fireworks began to fade. Neither club would cross home plate from the fourth inning through the seventh. Scherzer lasted five, paving the way for Stephen Strasburg to take the bump for the Nationals in relief. He was magnificent, but the Washington offense remained silent. 

With every out, the Nationals win probability became slimmer. A 1-2-3 inning from the Nationals following the stretch left them with just a 13 percent chance to come back with six outs to work with. Matters seemed to get even worse when they saw the Brewers trot out Josh Hader, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, from the bullpen.

Strasburg allowed a two-out double in the top of the eighth, but got Ryan Braun to ground out to end the inning. No. 37 was pitching lights out for the home squad, but was due up second in the bottom half of the frame.

With the way Washington's bats had been all evening, a comeback still seemed far out of reach. Prior to tonight, teams down by multiple runs entering the eighth inning in the playoffs had a .050 winning percentage, according to Elias Sports.

After Victor Robles struck out to open the bottom half, Nationals manager Dave Martinez elected to pinch-hit Michael A. Taylor for Strasburg, ending his pitcher's night. As the outfielder entered the batter's box, Fangraphs gave Washington just an 11.9 percent chance of winning, down 3-1 with five outs to play.

Then came one of the most memorable innings in franchise history. Taylor was hit-by-pitch, bringing the tying run to the plate. A Turner strikeout would give Milwaukee their second out of the eighth, bringing Washington's win probability down to 11.6 percent.

But that's as low as it got. Pinch-hitting for Adam Eaton, the longest-tenured National stepped into the box. Ryan Zimmerman miraculously singled up the middle while breaking his bat, giving the Nationals runners on first and third. Their win probability remained slim: 16.6 percent to be exact.

Rendon walked, juicing the bases for the Nationals 20-year-old phenom. But no moment is too big for Juan Soto. 

Soto squared up a Hader fastball, a line drive landing in front of Grisham in right field. Two runs would score. The game was tied. Then, the ball skirted past Grisham, and Rendon would come in from first on the error. Soto was tagged out at second, but that was the last thing on the star's mind. He has just given the Nationals their first lead of the game. 

When Rendon walked, the Nationals had just a 22.7 probability to win. After Soto's three-RBI knock, that percentage skyrocketed to 83.8 percent. All Nationals reliever Daniel Hudson had to do was get three outs, and it would be Washington, not Milwaukee, traveling to Los Angeles on Thursday for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers.

Hudson struck out Thames to begin the ninth, bringing the home team's win probability to 91.8 percent. Next up was Lorenzo Cain, who would single up the middle. But Hudson would get Orlando Arcia to pop out to Kurt Suzuki. With just one out remaining, the Nationals could smell the finish line. Their win probability was up to 92.1 percent.

 

Up to try and save the Brewers season was Ben Gamel. He put but a good swing on the ball, giving Nationals fans a brief scare. But Robles would jog just shy of the warning track, waiting a brief second before the ball squeezing the ball found the bottom of his glove.

The Nationals comeback was complete.

In many ways, Tuesday evening was a microcosm for the Nationals' 2019 season. April and May brought little joy to the ballclub. After they were swept by the New York Mets on May 24, they were given just a three percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to the Washington Post.

Their turnaround during the second half of the season became one of the most exciting stories in baseball, as they put together four excellent months resulting in a 93-win season. And on the first night of the month that defines baseball, they brought some October magic. Even the numbers show it.

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