Dancing Nats skip to a division series

The Nationals had the plan for the National League wild card game. Max Scherzer would start. All hands would be on deck in the pen including Stephen Strasburg in case Scherzer got into hot water, and Patrick Corbin in case Strasburg fell into the soup.

It’d be their big rotation guns against the Brewers’ bullpenning game. With Christian Yelich out of the picture thanks to that busted kneecap, the Brewers would be short of power while the Nats would abound with it. Right?

It wasn’t in the plans for Scherzer to get taken deep early before settling in. Or, for the Nats to take a three-run deficit into the bottom of the eighth, have to tangle with the Brewers’ best bullpen arm, Josh Hader, and turn it into a one-run lead on a misplayed, bases-loaded, bases-clearing single. By a rookie right fielder who hadn’t committed an error on 70 chances in 42 previous major league games. Right?

Oh, sure, they planned that Juan Soto, the boy wonder, would be one of the big men in the absolute clutch. So does every Nats fan and observer. Even on a night when it began to look as though the Nats began thinking the clutch was something you had to pump in an ancient car.

They just didn’t imagine Soto would whack the line single that sent the Brewers home for the winter, 4-3. Any more than the Brewers imagined right fielder Trent Grisham, though playing deep, wouldn’t be able to come up with the ball and keep the Nats to maybe a single run on the play. Any more than Grisham could imagine being a postseason hero in the first inning and a postseason victim in the eighth.

But it wasn’t in Grisham’s plans, either, to see the ball take a bizarre little skip under his glove and off to his right as he hustled forward and extended his glove down to take the likely hop. He reached to good position, then he saw the horrific skip away. Just like Leon Durham did in the 1984 National League Championship Series. Just like Bill Buckner did in the 1986 World Series.

Even as he retrieved the ball to start the rundown play that nailed Soto for the third out, Grisham would be forgiven if he wanted to lift up the Nationals Park right field grass, crawl under it, and leave behind nothing but a sign saying do not open until spring training.

He didn’t do that, but he did stand up and fess up to a rookie mistake. “I was getting ready to throw to home,” he said after the game. “Came in off-balance, it took a little funky hop on me because I came in off-balance. I didn’t really gather myself and the ball got by me.”

Said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “The inning was an ugly inning. Crazy things happen.”

To think the Dancing Nats, whose celebratory dugout rug cutting after big hits has become their season’s trademark, skip on to a division series date with the Dodgers. Crazy things, indeed.

Certainly it wasn’t in the Brewers’ plans to have no further solution for Scherzer as he shook off the early-inning bombs, or Strasburg as he flicked any hints of mischief away like annoying mosquitoes, or Daniel Hudson off whom they got nothing but a one-out single in the top of the ninth before a fly out to center sent the Nats Park crowd nuclear.

Apologies, John Lennon, wherever you are. Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, too.

Just like that, the Brewers’ heroic late September driving despite losing Yelich—playing like a threshing machine bound to overcome the imploding Cubs, getting about as close as the thickness of a sheet of paper to snatching the National League Central—meant nothing but getting the chance to let a game they almost had in the vault slip to the Nats.

“We finally caught a break,” said Scherzer, knowing only too well the Nats’ previous futility in winner-take-all games. “Man, this is so good for this city, and the team, and this organisation. It’s getting the monkey off your back. It gives you a reason to believe.”

For Grisham, by his own admission, the eighth inning is “gonna sting. It’s gonna sting for a long time.” His teammates did their best to remove the sting, he said, with plenty of words of encouragement and assurances that they might not have reached even the wild card game without him.

“I can take solace in what a lot of these guys said to me, especially a lot of the older veteran guys,” Grisham continued, talking to reporters after changing clothes, his voice calm, his manner matter-of-fact. “I have a lot of faith in them and trust what they said to me . . . I just ended up making an error. It’s not my first, and it’s not going to be my last.”

Remember his composure facing up to it after the wild card game. It was worth more than any brickbat heartsick Brewers fans are liable to swing in his direction. Remember that when men young or old try their best and fail, that’s all it is. Failure isn’t pretty but it isn’t a moral or character lapse.

The Nats didn’t expect Scherzer to get into hot water right out of the chute. They got the Brewers leading the majors in walks, but they didn’t expect Mad Max to walk Grisham on 3-2 to open the game before former Dodger Yasmani Grandal hit one into the Nats’ bullpen in right to end a six-pitch battle.

And they sure didn’t expect Eric Thames to open the top of the second defying the scouting reports—which command he be fed a diet of off-speed pitches to keep him from making mischief—and sending the second of Scherzer’s two straight curve balls over the right center field fence.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your hat and move on,” said Scherzer after the game.

Their only answer for long enough was Trea Turner with two outs in the bottom of the third, sending Brewers starter Brandon Workman’s only serious mistake of the evening into the left field seats. And after five innings’ and six strikeouts worth of work, plus a bottom of the fifth in which the Nats put two on and abandoned them, exit Scherzer and enter Strasburg. And Strasburg worked three mostly effortless innings, striking out four.

Effortless enough that the Dodgers may not get to wait as long as they’d prefer to deal with him in the division series, perhaps as soon as Game Two. With Corbin prepared to open against them. And Scherzer in Game Three on regular rest. (Memo to the Dodgers: Be careful what you plan for.)

The Brewers sent their vaunted enough bullpen out to continue nullifying the Nats. And for most of the game the Nats looked as though they were putting good at-bats together but spoiling them by seeming often as not to try to hit six-run homers with key swings.

Then the game got to Hader, who’s normally about as welcome out of the Brewers bullpen for his opponents as a case of hiccups is to a glass blower. And when he opened the bottom of the eighth by striking Victor Robles out after first falling behind 2-0, it began to look as though the Brewers had figured out every known escape hatch to use against the Nats.

Except that Hader’s pitch command looked suspect enough. And proved suspect enough when Michael A. Taylor pinch hit for Strasburg, worked his way to a full count, then got hit by a pitch. No, he didn’t. The ball hit the bat knob. No, it didn’t. Actually, it clipped Taylor’s hand and the bat knob. And in that nanosecond order. The review took a few minutes but the hit batsman call stood.

It may yet stand as the single most powerful plunk of all time.

At first it looked like it might end up otherwise, though, when Hader struck Turner out swinging. Then Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ elder statesman, who’d like to play one more season even as a role player, pinch hit for Adam Eaton, who’d been 0-for-3 on the night. The elder slashed a single right up the pipe for first and second. And Anthony Rendon, to the shower of a rollicking “M-V-P!” chant down from the stands, wrestled his way into a full-count walk.

Then it was Soto. With a foul off to open. Ball one far enough outside for a Washington Metro train to pass without bumping anything on either side. Then, the line drive that ducked and eluded the hapless Grisham’s glove. And ended up putting paid to the Brewers’ 2019.

Before the Brewers and the Nats suited up Tuesday night, Yelich actually let it be known he was half hoping for a shot at a World Series moment like Kirk Gibson’s in the 1988 World Series. The broken battler willing himself to one big swing where it mattered most and hurt the other guys most.

Just the way Gibson willed himself to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth of Game One, sent Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s hanging slider into the right field bullpen to win it, and pumped his right arm and fist more to urge a body that belonged in traction around the bases than to celebrate.

“I’ve seen it, yeah,” Yelich said. “I wouldn’t even be capable of doing that kind of run right now. We’re a long, long, long ways away from that happening, but you never like to rule anything out.”

Having fought so tenaciously after losing Yelich to get to Tuesday night in the first place, the Brewers didn’t exactly like having their postseason ruled out too soon, either. And, having fought back from an early 19-31 plotz that threatened to lay their season almost entirely to waste, these Nats didn’t intend for their postseason to be ruled out too soon, either.

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