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 extra innings loss against the Milwaukee Brewers. Juan Soto might have changed the divine line of destiny for his entire team, but if Anthony Rendon did not learn from a previous decision to chase high fastballs, Soto probably never gets his chance.
On that Saturday night on August 17th, the nearly sold-out crowd left 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 Anthony Rendon 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. In the Wild Card game, Rendon represented the winning run in the 8th inning and was told by his hitting coach, Kevin Long, that he should not chase the high fastballs. “Lay off of them” was the message from Long. Sure enough, Hader went to the same approach from August 17th on Rendon. All high fastballs. In the Wild Card game, Rendon took his walk this time, and loaded the bases for Juan Soto with two outs and a 3-to-1 deficit.
What happened next changed everything for every player who has ever worn a Washington Nationals uniform. 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, and Howie Kendrick and so many others.
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That Soto single that cleared the bases 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 5 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. “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.