One of life’s lessons is learning from your past. Baseball calls that the learning curve part of the process. Last year, were you paying attention on August 17th to what happened? You might be thinking of the Sean Doolittle blown save where he could not protect a 3-run lead and exited with a deficit of one run at 12-11 in an eventual 15-14 extra innings loss against the Milwaukee Brewers. Juan Soto might have changed the divine line of destiny for his entire team in the dramatic Wild Card game against those Brewers, but if Anthony Rendon did not learn from a previous decision to chase high fastballs against Josh Hader, Soto probably never gets his chance. There was more to it than that; a Michael A. Taylor HBP that survived a nail-biting challenge, and a lob wedge broken bat single by the veteran, Ryan Zimmerman, that landed in the only place it could — to not be caught as three Brewers fielders chased it. Zim was inserted strategically as a pinch-hitter and that shattered bat should be bronzed. Every bizarre play that clicked into place seemed so unlikely at the time and then it added up to the improbable.
On that Saturday night on August 17th, the nearly sold-out crowd exited Nats Park disappointed with a 14-inning loss and multiple comebacks wasted. But don’t fret, what Rendon learned in the bottom of the 9th inning as the Maryland kid, Josh Hader, schooled the 2019 All-Star on that day with two outs and the bases loaded. Were you paying attention? The winning run for the walk-off was dancing off of third base less than 90 feet away from homeplate. Rendon expanded his zone and saw nothing but four-seamers, and came up empty with a Strike-3 swing and miss. There would be no walk-off on that night.
In the Wild Card game, Rendon represented the potential winning run in the 8th inning with his team losing 3-1 and two men on-base. He was reminded by his hitting coach, Kevin Long, that he should not chase the high fastballs from the Brewers closer. “Lay off of the high pitches” was the subtle message from Long. Sure enough, Hader went to the same approach from August 17th on Rendon. Some thought Hader was going fastballs because he could not locate his slider. All high fastballs worked the first time for Hader so why not try it again? This time, Rendon was patient, unselfish, strategic, a good student of the game, and he worked the walk, and earned his base. What happened there was extending the hope. He laid off of that high fastball that was so tempting and loaded the bases for Juan Soto with two outs and a 3-to-1 deficit. Rendon did not chase. He did not try to be the hero — but he was a necessary accomplice. Tony did his part and kept the line moving. Now it was up to the 20-year-old.
What happened next changed everything for every player who has ever worn a Washington Nationals uniform, manager, GM, and owner. It was like exorcising the demons of postseason, past. How many times have the Nats been called chokers who never got past the NLDS. Soto’s at-bat was nothing short of the work of legends. But if Soto struck out in that situation, Rendon’s career with the Washington Nationals probably ends right there with big question marks. His 2019 postseason batting average would have been .000. His 2017 postseason batting average was .176. His 2016 postseason batting average was .150. When Rendon took that walk, Soto became the “Magic Juan’d” and sent everyone home from Nats Park with hope. That hope became the springboard for some of the greatest postseason performances in history by Stephen Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez, Patrick Corbin, Rendon, Soto, Zim, and Howie Kendrick and so many others.
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That Soto single that cleared the bases off of Hader, and whatever you believe happened to that baseball when it met the turf in front of the Brewers’ right fielder, Trent Grisham, is part of the lore. If you believe in the baseball gods, maybe it was just the Nats time. From the challenged hit-by-pitch on Michael A. Taylor to Ryan Zimmerman‘s broken bat blooper to Rendon’s walk to Soto’s single — it had all of the elements of the game of inches.
“That ball is an inch foul, and it could have been an inch fair,” said Max Scherzer about a key Joc Pederson shot down the line in game 4 of the NLDS.
A game of inches, bounces, and split-seconds. A game of luck and a game of skill.
“In the playoffs, you have to get a couple lucky bounces,” said Zimmerman before the Wild Card game. Truer words were never spoken. “I’ve seen it the other way where the other team gets a couple lucky bounces go their way. It’s a wacky game.”
Soto’s ball bounced the right way, and sent the Nats packing for the NLDS in Los Angeles. The rest is history.