Washington Post: Nats take a tortured history and flip the script

October 2, 2019

By Barry SvrlugaPut down the phone. Don’t call your therapist. Not yet, at least. Juan Soto staved off winter Tuesday night at Nationals Park with the most beautiful ugly play Washington has seen since playoff baseball became a regular part of Octobers around here. This franchise needed a script-flipper. Soto flipped it, with help from a character who should now be logged with all those others from past autumns: a 22-year-old Texan named Trent Grisham.

What did that take, 15 seconds to completely overhaul how a baseball town feels about itself? Instead of the night Stephen Strasburg should have started instead of Max Scherzer, instead of the night Dave Martinez mistakenly allowed a shaky Scherzer to hit for himself trailing by three runs, Tuesday night becomes something that hadn’t previously existed for the Nationals: a night they won to survive a playoff round.

Yeah, it’s just one game, the National League wild card. But we can now say something we couldn’t before: The Nationals have advanced in October.

Was that a group of Nats swarming one another in the infield, ready to go home and board a flight Wednesday for Los Angeles, where the Dodgers await? Let me blink. Sure seems like it.

October is underway, and the Nationals are alive because Soto delivered the two-out, bases-loaded hit in the bottom of the eighth that would have tied the score with no help but ended up providing a 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers because Grisham couldn’t corral a bad hop and the ball got by him.

In other Octobers, wouldn’t Grisham have been wearing a Nats uniform? Maybe. In the past, would Anthony Rendon, the winning run, have slipped coming around third base? Seems entirely possible.

Not this time.

“We’ve been here a bunch of times, and never kind of broke through,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who delivered a key pinch hit in the rally. “Finally caught a break tonight. Kind of fitting this game would go this way.”

Amazingly, the Nats caught more than one. Relive it while it’s fresh. Feeling good in October isn’t guaranteed. Seize this moment.

Remember the base runners, because for once we have a decisive Nats postseason inning you’ll want to reconstruct. They would be Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson and Rendon. If you had that trifecta to score the Nats’ final three runs, congratulations on your new mansion.

Sift through this stuff, because it’s fascinating and helps offset some of the misery this house has hosted in the past. What’s next: Thursday, Game 1 of a division series against the Dodgers, who will be heavily favored. After Tuesday, think these guys care?

“That’s what they needed,” said Jayson Werth, the former Nats outfielder who had endured all the torture of the past. “Get their backs against the wall.”

That’s what they were for so long Tuesday, strangled by a Milwaukee pitching staff that had an Oscar-worthy script for a decisive game. That included trying to get the final six outs, protecting a two-run lead, from reliever Josh Hader, a fearsome figure who is exactly the kind of character who can become a beast in October.

In this case, though, Hader caved. One of the key at-bats came from an unlikely person: Taylor, a postseason hero from 2017, banished to Class AAA this summer.

But here, Martinez called on Taylor with one out in the eighth because he had homered and walked against Hader in his two plate appearances against him. Instead, what happened was the first Nats break: a ball that rode up and in on Taylor’s hands, hit by pitch, a play that was reviewed because the Brewers thought it might have hit Taylor’s bat first.

In another year, at another time, maybe the replay officials would have reversed that call. On Tuesday, they upheld it. A payback for all the pain from the past? Who knows?

Either way, in the dugout, Martinez said, “Ten guys jumped up and yelled, ‘Let’s go!’ ”

Before we get to the rest of the inning, let’s be clear: We were incredibly close to lumping this loss with all those other painful nights from the past. With Strasburg available out of the bullpen, Martinez allowed a struggling Scherzer to hit for himself in the third. He tapped out on one pitch. That’s giving up an out in a situation in which outs are precious.

What happened with the next hitter? Why, Trea Turner walloped a homer to left-center. Would a pinch hitter — Brian Dozier or Gerardo Parra or Zimmerman — have gotten on in front of Turner? We’ll never know.

Martinez, though, is off the hook for three reasons. Scherzer, even less than his best, is the kind of competitor who can produce, and keeping the Brewers off the board in the fourth and fifth was enormous. Strasburg, who might have been in earlier, was his dominant self, allowing two harmless hits in three innings, striking out four.

And then, Soto. And more.

“The whole inning, in general, for me, I appreciate, because I know how tough it is to face that guy out there,” Turner said.

He knows, because Hader blew him away with a fastball for the second out. But with Taylor at first, Martinez inserted Zimmerman, who fought a pitch into center field. First and second. Rendon managed to lay off a 3-2 pitch. Suddenly, the bases were full.

Was this, of all things, hope?

“We had so many good at-bats there,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Mikey Taylor, Zim. Then we got it to the big horses. And that last big horse, we have a lot of belief in him.”

That would be Soto, all of 20.

“He’s done it all year for us,” Martinez said. “That’s why he’s the cleanup hitter.”

He was, at that moment, 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts, continuing a slump that closed the season. But he approached the at-bat with the uncommon maturity that has marked the first two years of his big league career.

“I know he was in trouble,” Soto said of Hader. He got a 95-mph fastball and sent it into right.

Nats Park has felt like this before, when Werth hit his walk-off homer against St. Louis in 2012, forcing a fifth game. That one ended, we all know, with heads in hands. Tuesday doesn’t change the past. But it provides a future.

“The tables turned,” Turner said. “We’re here now.”

With the ballpark still emptying, and the player’s wives gathering on the mound for celebratory photos, a group of fans in red gathered behind the Nats’ dugout. “Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!” they chanted.

It’s just one game. It gets the Nationals only to the position where they have fallen before. But Tuesday night kept the horrors at bay and replaced them with joy. Now, when we reflect on this franchise’s postseason history, it won’t just be Pete Kozma through the right side of the infield and Matt Wieters firing the ball into right field. It’ll be Juan Soto, age 20, rocketing that ball to right, and Grisham booting it.

For once, they caught a break. Now, it’s on them to take advantage of it.

Nash Sanderson