Juan Soto Leads the Way in Nationals Win
When Juan Soto made his Washington Nationals‘debut last season, he was just 19 years old. Despite his age, he proved he not only belonged in the majors, but he was going to be a superstar. Soto’s star certainly shined bright Tuesday night in the Nationals’ 4-3 comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Soto, playing in his first-ever playoff game, delivered the Nationals’ game-winning hit, a bases-loaded single that should have tied the game at three. However, the ball got under Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham‘s glove, allowing all three baserunners to score and putting the Nationals up 4-3. They would never look back.
The game started with two of baseball’s hardest throwing pitchers on the mound. Max Scherzer faced off with the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff. It was clear from the start that both pitchers were feeding on the adrenaline of the playoff atmosphere. Scherzer and Woodruff regularly approached 100 mph on the gun.
That didn’t stop the Brewers from jumping on Scherzer early. Scherzer allowed a leadoff walk to Trent Grisham, albeit on some very questionable calls. Twice in the at-bat, it looked as if Scherzer had notched strike three but home plate umpire Mike Everitt had a very tight strike zone.
Grisham’s walk set the stage for Brewers’ catcher Yasmani Grandal. Grandal, knowing that Scherzer was heavily relying on his fastball, sat on a first-pitch heater and drove it over the right-field fence to put the Brewers up 2-0. A very rowdy Nationals crowd was instantly deflated, but Scherzer hunkered down and quickly got three straight outs.
Thames was the first batter Scherzer faced in the top of the second. On a 1-0 count, Thames swung on a slider that was low and away but managed to muscle the ball into the right-center seats, making it 3-0 Brewers.
It was a solid pitch by Scherzer, but nonetheless, a homer is a homer. Most pitchers would have been done for, but Scherzer pitches with a tenacity that is unmatched by many. He managed to get through the rest of the second without another run scoring.
Nationals Get on the Board
Woodruff continued to look dominant, pitching a scoreless second inning, but the Nationals finally got to him courtesy of a Turner solo home run in the bottom of the third to make it 3-1.
Scherzer and Woodruff both posted scoreless fourth innings. Scherzer came back out for the top of the fifth and once again kept the Brewers scoreless. Woodruff was replaced by Brent Suter in the bottom of the fifth and he looked dominate as well retiring the Nationals in order.
Strasburg Gets the Call
Regularly a starting pitcher, Stephen Strasburg was called on in the top of the sixth to keep the Nationals in the game. Despite closing in college, it was Strasburg’s first professional appearance out of the bullpen. Many coaches fear that starting pitchers will falter out of the pen thanks to the change in routine.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez felt that his best chance to keep the Nationals in the game was using his other starters. It’s been no secret that the bullpen is the Nationals’ biggest weakness, and many felt Strasburg should have started anyway.
Strasburg did not make Martinez regret the decision. He pitched heroically, holding the Brewers scoreless over three innings while allowing only two hits and striking out four.
Suter and Drew Pomeranz were also effective for the Brewers, combining to shut out the Nationals from the fifth through seventh innings. It all changed, however, in the bottom of the eighth.
Hader Comes on in the Eighth
The Brewers elected to bring in hard-throwing closer Josh Hader for the top of the eighth, and that’s when the Nationals finally came alive. Hader has looked unhittable throughout his career. This year alone, he struck out 138 batters in just 75 and 2/3 innings pitched.
The Nationals did not shy away from the moment, however. Victor Robles struck out to begin the inning, and controversy soon followed. The next batter, pinch hitter Michael A. Taylor, appeared to be struck on the hand by Hader’s fastball and was awarded first base. Brewers manager Craig Counsell challenged, the ruling arguing that the ball had struck the bat first, not Taylor’s hand. A replay review upheld the call, and Taylor took first.
Hader was able to strike out Turner for the second out. Martinez then summoned a pinch hitter — perhaps the most beloved Nationals player of all-time in Ryan Zimmerman. Hader made a good pitch and broke Zimmerman’s bat, but somehow the ball dropped into center field, putting runners on first and second.
Soto Comes through for the Nationals
Zimmerman was then lifted for a pinch-runner, Andrew Stevenson. Rendon, who has been the Nationals best player and an MVP candidate, worked a walk to load up the bases for the 20-year-old Soto.
While most 20-year-olds still live on their mother and father’s couch, Soto found himself taking the plate against one of the most dominant relievers in baseball with his team’s season on the line.
In the regular season, Hader had faced 66 left-handed batters and allowed nine hits while striking out 34. Soto apparently didn’t pay attention to the numbers and showed a calmness way beyond his years at the plate.
Soto lined a 1-1 pitch into right field. Taylor and Stevenson probably would have scored regardless, but Grisham, in a hurry to get the ball home, allowed the ball to go right under his glove. Rendon scored easily, making it 4-3 and giving the Nationals their first lead of the game.
It was all they could muster, but it didn’t matter. Reliever Daniel Hudson struck out Thames to start the ninth. He then allowed a base hit to Lorenzo Cain but quickly recovered to get Orlando Arcia to pop out. Ben Gamel provided a brief scare to Nationals fans when he hit a ball hard to center. Robles was pushed back to the warning track in center field but secured the catch to complete the 4-3 win.
Los Angeles Dodgers up Next
The Nationals were on top of the world at the conclusion of the game thanks to so many recent years of postseason struggles. Scherzer echoed this sentiment. “Just getting the monkey off our backs,” he said. “If you’re not going to get a win, you don’t get to celebrate … it’s such a special feeling with all of these guys. I love these guys. There’s just so much fight in everybody.”
The celebrations won’t last long. The Nationals will play the Los Angeles Dodgers, perhaps the best team in the National League, in the NLDS. The series will start Thursday night in L.A. The Nationals are expected to start lefty Patrick Corbin, while it remains to be seen whom the Dodgers will tap to start.