WASHINGTON — After all the heartache and close calls, all the early exits, maybe it makes sense that a 20-year-old kid who never had been to the post-season, Juan Soto, would help the Washington Nationals finally advance.
And maybe, just maybe, it makes sense that it would be this particular edition of the Nationals, a club that went from 12 games under .500 in May to playoff participant, that demonstrated the necessary never-give-up fortitude when things looked bleak.
Soto delivered a bases-loaded single against Milwaukee closer Josh Hader that scored three runs with two outs in the eighth inning, thanks in part to an error by rookie outfielder Trent Grisham, and the Nationals came back to beat the Brewers 4-3 in the NL wild-card game Tuesday night.
“We started off horrible, as we all know, and we vowed that we wouldn’t quit,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said, talking about the year as a whole but sounding like he could have meant this particular evening. “I told the boys, ‘I promise you, stay with it, don’t quit, this will turn around.’ And it did. And here we are today.”
The Nationals carry a nine-game winning streak into their best-of-five NL Division Series against the league-best Dodgers.
Game 1 is Thursday in Los Angeles, and some in the sellout crowd of 42,993 chanted “Beat LA! Beat LA!” as members of the Nationals began their celebration on the infield with family members.
That included Soto’s father leaping onto his back and tackling him amid the excitement.
The Nationals, who moved to Washington from Montreal before the 2005 season, had been 0-3 in winner-take-all post-season games — all NLDS Game 5 losses at home, by a grand total of four runs. Indeed, eight of their past nine playoff losses had been by one run apiece.
This time, it went the other way.
“We’ve been here a bunch of times. Never kind of broke through,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ first draft pick back in 2005, so someone who has been through all the disappointment. “Finally caught a break tonight.”
It was Zimmerman’s broken-bat bloop single as a pinch hitter that helped load the bases in the eighth off Hader, who took the loss.
Hader hit another pinch hitter, Michael A. Taylor, a ruling that stood up when the Brewers challenged, according to Major League Baseball, because there wasn’t “clear and convincing evidence to overturn the call.”
Said Hader: “Definitely looked like it got the bat, but it also got his hand.”
Hader, who had 37 saves this season, also walked Anthony Rendon, filling the bags and bringing Soto to the plate.
What was Soto thinking right then?
“Just get a base hit up the middle,” he said, “and try to help to tie the game.”
The runner-up for 2018 NL Rookie of the Year did more than that. Soto ripped a 96 mph fastball to right, and the ball skipped under Grisham’s glove for an error. That allowed the go-ahead run to cross the plate and Soto to get to second, then turn for third.
“Right guy, right spot,” winning pitcher Stephen Strasburg said about Soto.
Eventually, Soto was caught in a rundown to end the inning, but that didn’t matter: He had turned a 3-1 deficit into a lead, and so he clapped his hands, then pounded his chest and high-fived third base coach Bob Henley, before shouting “Let’s go!” and its Spanish equivalent, “Vamonos!”
“The inning was an ugly inning,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Crazy things happen.”
Grisham, who has appeared in only 51 games in the majors and took over in right after reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season three weeks ago with a broken kneecap, said the ball “came in with a little topspin, took a funny hop.”
His teammates tried to console a tearful Grisham with a series of hugs in the clubhouse afterward.
“It’s going to sting,” he said.
After Max Scherzer fell behind 3-0 by giving up homers to Yasmani Grandal in the first and Eric Thames in the second, Strasburg replaced him in the sixth and threw three scoreless innings to earn the win in the first relief appearance of his major league career, regular season or playoffs.
Daniel Hudson pitched the ninth for the save, getting Ben Gamel to fly out to the warning track in centre with a man on to end it.
“Hats off for us to for continuing to fight, because we know if we could keep it close we could have a chance at the end,” said Trea Turner, who got Washington within 3-1 with a solo shot off Brandon Woodruff in the third.
It wasn’t until the eighth, though, that the Nationals would push more runs across. Just the sort of dramatic turnaround they pulled off this season, going from 19-31 in May to playoff team.
And now it continues.
“Kind of sums up our season, the way this game went,” Zimmerman said. “We’ll take it and we’ll move on.”
Brewers: OFs Ryan Braun (calf) and Lorenzo Cain (ankle) were in the starting lineup despite late-season injuries. They came into Tuesday a combined 0 for 29 with 12 Ks against Scherzer and went 0 for 4 while he was in the game.
Nationals: C Kurt Suzuki, who missed most of September because of a bothersome right elbow, played nine innings Tuesday.
The fourth inning was bizarre. Fire alarms — false alarms, thankfully, the Nationals eventually said — rang out. The public address system went completely silent for several minutes, so the Racing Presidents mascot race in the middle of the inning went on without the usual play-by-play, and the initial two Nationals batters in the bottom half went to the plate without any walk-up music or announcement of their names.
Left-hander Patrick Corbin will start Game 1 for the Nationals against the Dodgers, who eliminated Washington in Game 5 of their 2016 NLDS. LA won the teams’ season series this year 4-2.