The Nationals were on the brink of elimination before future franchise cornerstone Juan Soto delivered a game-tying two-run single in the eighth inning to lead the perennially snake-bitten franchise to a surreal come-from-behind 4-3 victory over the Brewers in the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday. According to FanGraphs win expectancy calculations, Washington held a microscopic 16 percent chance of emerging victorious in the winner-take-all elimination contest when Milwaukee closer Josh Hader stepped to the mound to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Nationals’ slim hopes of mounting a late-inning rally received a much-needed injection of life when veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman delivered a two-out single and ensuing batter Anthony Rendon worked a seven-pitch walk, which put the potential tying runs in scoring position for their main offensive catalyst. The 20-year-old burgeoning superstar scalded a line-drive single to right field - which scooted under the glove of rookie Trent Grisham, who was charged with an error on the play - resulting in an electrifying, bases-clearing, tie-breaking moment which seems destined to live on for an eternity in postseason highlight reels. With the victory, the Nationals advance to face the Dodgers in the best-of-five National League Division Series, which kicks-off with Game 1 in Los Angeles on Thursday.
It’s a devastating, soul-crushing loss for a Milwaukee squad, which overcame an incredible amount of adversity - including the loss of reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich to a season-ending knee injury in early September - just to make it into the playoffs at all. Until their epic eighth-inning meltdown, the Brewers executed flawlessly and appeared to be on the precipice of a thrilling rematch against the Dodgers, whom they took to seven games in last year’s NLCS. The Brewers unexpectedly pounced on Scherzer right away, as Yasmani Grandal kicked off the scoring with a two-run homer in the opening frame. The 30-year-old on-base machine, who drew an astounding 109 walks in 153 games during the regular season, followed a leadoff walk by rookie outfielder Trent Grisham by ambushing a 98-mph heater on the first pitch he saw, sending a line-drive over the right-field wall. Milwaukee tacked on an additional insurance run courtesy of a leadoff homer by first baseman Eric Thames in the ensuing frame. Per Baseball-Reference, it was the first time that the three-time Cy Young Award winner had allowed a homer in each of the first two innings of a start since September 15, 2011.
The Nationals finally got on the board, courtesy of a solo shot by Trea Turner in the third inning. However, they were completely flummoxed by Brewers’ starter Brandon Woodruff, who yielded one run over four frames to being the contest, and a pair of relievers - Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz - who followed with three scoreless frames. The lefty duo unexpectedly emerged as key components of the Brewers’ bullpen during the final two months of the regular season and were poised to be the unsung heroes in this one. Suter, who missed the first six months of the regular season recovering from Tommy John surgery, made his return to the major leagues on September 2, allowed only one run, while recording a 15/1 K/BB ratio across 18 1/3 frames and was named the NL’s Reliever of the Month. He surrendered a two-out single to speedster Victor Robles, but managed to escape the fifth inning completely unscathed. At that point, the Brewers turned to Pomeranz for two frames. The 30-year-old southpaw proved to be a pivotal trade deadline acquisition, posting a microscopic 2.39 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 45/8 K/BB ratio across 26 1/3 innings over the final two months of the regular season. Unfortunately, Hader couldn’t slam the door at the end of the night, resulting in a brutal season-ending defeat.
The Nationals deserve a ton of credit for being willing to pull out all the stops from a pitching perspective, piggy-backing Scherzer -- who managed to settle in after a rocky start to spin five solid frames -- with co-ace Stephen Strasburg, who looked virtually unhittable over three scoreless frames. With the lead secured, Nationals’ managed turned the ball over to Daniel Hudson -- who had failed to make the Opening Day roster for a 90-loss Angels squad -- before being acquired from the Blue Jays (along with a plethora of other relievers) at the trade deadline in July. The 32-year-old veteran right-hander whiffed Eric Thames before giving up a base hit to Lorenzo Cain, who remained in the Brewers’ starting lineup despite suffering a sprained ankle on Saturday. He managed to get Orlando Arcia to pop-out in foul territory before coaxing a game-ending fly out from Ben Gamel. If there’s one decision that MLB has nailed, it’s been the implementation of the single-elimination Wild Card contests, which have produced some of the most memorable postseason moments of the last few decades.
Rays/A’s Set For Wild Card Showdown
After an epic senior circuit showdown, the Rays and Athletics will square off in a winner-take-all American League Wild Card showdown in Oakland on Wednesday night. Tampa Bay will hand the ball to their most reliable starter, 35-year-old veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who put together the finest season of his career, recording a 3.05 ERA (2.81 FIP), 1.08 WHIP and 240/57 K/BB ratio across 194 2/3 innings (33 starts). According to Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric, his 2.96 DRA represented the 11th-lowest mark among starters with at least 100 innings of work this year. He also ranked 11th in ERA and ninth in strikeouts among qualified starters during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Oakland will counter with left-hander Sean Manaea, who will be on an extra day’s rest after making his final regular-season start in Seattle last Thursday. Veteran right-hander Mike Fiers, who started last Friday, will be available to pitch in relief, if needed. The 27-year-old southpaw missed the first five months of the year recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum, but was utterly dominant in five late-season starts at the major-league level. He posted a microscopic 1.21 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 38/7 K/BB ratio across 29 2/3 innings during that span. Per Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data, Manaea has been relying primarily on his fastball and slider combination, which is a bit of a departure from the steady diet of fastballs and changeups that he used to feature in the past. With very few right-handed options available due to injuries to Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, it seems likely that the Rays will look to stack their lineup with right-handed power and force righty relievers like Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria and All-Star closer Liam Hendriks to beat them in key situations. Rookie left-handers Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk could also play a major role as multi-inning relief weapons in this one.
AL Quick Hits: Twins’ infielder Ehire Adrianza (oblique) said Tuesday that he's now feeling 100 percent. ... Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Tuesday that the Angels and Padres are the favorites to land former Cubs manager Joe Maddon. … Blue Jays general manager Russ Atkins told reporters on Tuesday that they are “committed” to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing third base. … Angels fired pitching coach Doug White … Joe Palumbo (blister) won't pitch in the Arizona Fall League. … Orioles claimed RHP Cole Sulser off waivers from the Rays.
NL Quick Hits: Dallas Keuchel and Miles Mikolas will start for the Braves and Cardinals, respectively, in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday. … Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts confirmed Tuesday that Justin Turner (back) will be ready for Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday. He also told reporters that he hasn’t decided on a Game 1 starter, but will choose between Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler or Hyun-Jin Ryu. … Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi confirmed Tuesday that both Hensley Meulens and Ron Wotus will be interviewed for their open managerial job. … The Reds are not expected to retain Turner Ward, who served as the team’s hitting coach last season. … Reds promoted Caleb Cotham to Assistant Pitching Coach and Director of Pitching and hired Kyle Boddy as Director of Pitching Initiatives/Pitching Coordinator.