You have forgiven yourself by now for how you felt after the second inning. Two home runs against Max Scherzer, that postseason gut wrench back so fast, in such a jarring manner.
The 2019 Wild-Card Game between the Nationals and Brewers felt like another of those nights. The sighs and wonder why this team can’t get it together in the postseason pervaded the stadium. By late Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, plans for Wednesday were being made. They did not involve a flight for the home team to Los Angeles. They did not anticipate a continuation of the Nationals’ baseball season. This was the end. Again.
Especially with Josh Hader coming into the game. A lethal, long-haired left-hander. The Nationals fared well against left-handed pitching all season. But, this was Hader, one of the premier pitchers in the National League, if not all of baseball. Stephen Strasburg’s surprise relief appearance -- the first step of a championship plan -- allowed the Nationals to stay close until Hader showed up in the eighth inning. The Brewers sent him out for six outs. He recorded the third only because of over-exuberance.
Who was Juan Soto before this night? He may have been an epiphany in the District. Bryce Harper was gone, Soto was quickly evolving into an offensive force and future hopes were being piled onto his shoulders. He liked the attention. He liked the fight in the batter’s box. However, his national profile was not on par with Ronald Acuña Jr., who took a star turn the year before in the playoffs.
Soto changed everything for himself -- and the Nationals -- when he singled to right field against Hader. The inning was a study in what had been missing in Nationals postseasons past. Michael A. Taylor was hit by a pitch -- maybe. Ryan Zimmerman’s broken-bat contact produced a two-out bloop single. Anthony Rendon walked on a 3-2 pitch. Bases loaded, Soto up, a lefty-lefty affair. Left-handed hitters had a .182 on-base percentage against Hader in 2019. Yet, Soto came though. Two runs scored because of a bad bounce. Davey Martinez was so preoccupied with yelling encouragement to Rendon, who was trying to score from first, he almost forgot someone needed to get ready in the bullpen to close the game out.
Beer flew. Ernie Johnson’s voice cracked. Rendon scored easily. Daniel Hudson began to warm up amid the chaos. Martinez said recently he’ll never forget the cascade of beer.
Thirty days later, they would be celebrating in Houston. Soto’s postseason run helped push him into the national consciousness and was a harbinger of his 2020 MVP candidacy. He changed his brand and the team’s fortunes with one swing against Hader. The swing that finally began to push everything forward.