Wild Card Takeaways: Brewers error helps Nationals rally late, reach NLDS

Members of the Washington Nationals celebrate after winning a National League wild-card baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Remember when the Washington Nationals shut Stephen Strasburg down with an eye toward future seasons back in 2012? This was probably the kind of night they had in mind when they managed his workload so carefully.

In the NL wild-card game Tuesday, Strasburg entered in relief of Max Scherzer, who had allowed two home runs on the way to a 3-1 Milwaukee lead. Three scoreless innings from Strasburg later, Washington loaded the bases for Juan Soto, who came through with a game-changing swing that sent the Nationals back to the NLDS.

Eventually, Washington will have to figure out how to arrange its pitching staff against an impressive Dodgers team that’s eyeing its third consecutive World Series appearance. But until then, it’s time for a well-deserved celebration. Those have been rare in Washington, with NLDS losses in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Who knows, maybe 2019 will be different. In the meantime, here are some observations after a memorable NL wild-card game…

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The hero and the goat
With the bases loaded and the Nationals trailing 3-1, Soto hit a potential game-tying single to right field. That in itself is impressive considering Soto’s age (20) and opponent (Milwaukee’s dominant lefty, Josh Hader).

But the importance of the single was magnified when Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham charged aggressively only to see the ball go under his glove as the Nationals circled the bases. It’s unfair to pin the Brewers’ loss on any one player, especially someone who filled in admirably after Christian Yelich got hurt late in the season, but there’s no doubt Grisham will feel this one more than most.

One way to avoid the bullpen
There were some bad bullpens in baseball this year as fans of the Royals, Rockies and Orioles can attest. Believe it or not, the Nationals were actually worst of all. Their relievers combined for a 5.66 ERA while allowing an .800 OPS.

Even after adding reinforcements at the trade deadline, this isn’t exactly the kind of group you want pitching in must-win games. With that in mind, the Nationals turned to Strasburg for the first relief appearance of his big-league career. The right-hander didn’t disappoint, striking out four over three scoreless innings.

Then, with a trip to the NLDS at stake, Daniel Hudson entered for Washington and sent them to Los Angeles. Bad bullpens will eventually get exposed in the post-season, but for one night at least the Nationals got by.

Bring on the homers
Every October, you’ll hear from observers who suggest teams should use more small ball, prioritizing balls in play over power. And sure, if you’re the 2014-15 Royals, that strategy makes sense.

By and large, though, today’s teams win and lose with power. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently showed, home runs are actually more important in October, when elite pitchers are on the mound for a higher percentage of innings and runs are at a premium.

In Washington Tuesday, home runs played a huge role in determining the outcome of the game. Yasmani Grandal, Eric Thames and Trea Turner each homered, accounting for the game’s first four runs.

Redemption for Grandal…
Few players had worse Octobers than Grandal in 2018. Not only did he post a .541 OPS in 14 playoff games with the Dodgers, he struggled badly behind the plate, allowing two errors and two passed balls in one particularly rough game. Eventually, Dave Roberts stopped starting him at catcher and the Dodgers lost the World Series.

Over the winter, Grandal signed a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers, the very team against which he struggled so badly last October. The deal resulted in another productive season, with 2.5 wins above replacement in Milwaukee.

Yet of all the players likely to make an impact Tuesday, Grandal was low on the list. In 16 career at-bats against Scherzer, he had just one hit – a single – compared to nine strikeouts.

In that context it was somehow fitting that Grandal put the Brewers on the board with a first-inning home run against Scherzer. Next up? Another chance at free agency, this time with no possibility of a qualifying offer.

… and for Pomeranz
A year ago, when Drew Pomeranz was the only member of the Red Sox not to appear in the World Series, his fastball averaged 89.3 m.p.h. Even a few months ago, when the Brewers acquired Pomeranz at the trade deadline, they were adding a pitcher with a 5.68 ERA.

A lot’s changed since late July. A move to the bullpen worked out better than expected in Milwaukee, as Pomeranz struck out 45 of the 100 batters he faced with the Brewers in the regular season. That trend continued on Tuesday, as Pomeranz struck out two Nationals over the course of two scoreless innings while topping out at 97.8 m.p.h.

But once Hader replaced Pomeranz, the Nationals’ bats rallied, leading to a memorable night in Washington.

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