Winning the NL East never worked for the Washington Nationals to advance in the postseason. They tried it four times with three different managers from Davey Johnson to Matt Williams to Dusty Baker with the same result of devastating losses. There was constant disappointment and anger mixed with failure in each loss.
Maybe the different road to the postseason would be the answer. When the Nats secured a berth as the Wild Card last year, that game was played exactly one year ago on this day. It is a day that Nats fans will never forget.
The Nats trailed for 7 2/3 innings in the game. They were four outs from elimination in a one-game playoff. Win or go home looked like the team’s four prior exits where the team would not advance in the postseason. Besides a Trea Turner solo home run earlier in the game, nothing else went the Nats way until four plays ALL went the Nats way. Four improbable moments of which each almost defied the odds. The progression of plays in that 8th inning were all dependent of a success but if any part of that chain turned into an out, it would mean a failure. It was the classic, “keep the line moving.” The Nats were trailing 3-1 at the time, and these four plays were nothing short of incredible when you think about how it all came together.
1. It took a hit-by-pitch on Michael A. Taylor in a 3-2 count against Brewers All-Star closer Josh Hader to get it started — or did it? The Brewers challenged the call that the pitch hit the knob of Taylor’s bat — and maybe it did, but the replay went the Nats way as “inconclusive” and the original call stood. That was the first break for the Nats.
2. With two outs, Ryan Zimmerman pinch-hit for Adam Eaton and was sawed off on a tough pitch by Hader as Zim muscled a ball into short centerfield that seemed to hang up in the air forever as Nats fans were wishing for gravity to work in their favor and reach terra firma. Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states, “what goes up must come down.” Baseballs are not exempt from the laws of physics unless they are caught in a glove.
On some days, that ball is caught, but on this day, it found some outfield grass. While watching in real-time, the ball seemed to stay in the air for an eternity — but in fact was in the air for just 3.8 seconds. Lorenzo Cain, who was also an All-Star and a defensive whiz, was playing with a sore leg and could not reach the ball, and it blooped in for a single for Zimmerman. It was the second break the Nationals needed.
3. Anthony Rendon stepped into the batter’s box with two runners on-base, and Tony represented the go-ahead run. He worked the count to 3-2 and it was déjà Vu with a different result this time if you remember the last time this pair faced each other.
Back on August 17th Hader blazed a fastball above the zone which Rendon swung and missed for a strikeout with bases loaded. That was the pitch Rendon had to stay off in the Wild Card game. Sure enough, Rendon got the same exact pitch (a little higher) and this time did not swing. He took his free bag and loaded the bases and moved the line to Juan Soto.
4. The 20-year-old stepped up to the plate in a lefty/lefty showdown with bases loaded. A single probably ties the game as speedy Andrew Stevenson was inserted as a pinch-runner for Zimmerman. On a one-one pitch, the result was better than a grand slam if you wanted high drama for the situation. It was a single coupled with an error that cleared the bases, and the Nats took the lead. The ball appeared to move on the outfielder, Trent Grisham, and he overran the ball. Did the ball hit a divot or a sprinkler head to change directions or was it an optical illusion on a poor play by Grisham? To date, nobody asked Grisham if the ball shifted directions, but at the time was the most fortuitous error in Nats history that scored Rendon from first base on the error for the winning run.
Baseball has a way of creating heroes and villains in games like this. Soto the hero, Trent Grisham the villain. Maybe it is the G.O.A.T. and the scapegoat. It never seems to be fair to assess blame on one player or give all of the praise to one player. It took four separate plays to add up to a 4-3 lead for the Nats. They call it the Wild Card and this game was wild. The Nats celebrated the victory, and proved to be the best team in 2019.
I’ll always be grateful that I was there…
Watch…AGAIN 🎥 🔊
HAPPY BIRTHDAY JUAN SOTO! 🎉🎂🎈🎉
— Navy Yard Nats (@NavyYardNats) October 25, 2019
Remember Juan Soto’s game-winning 1B to win the Wild Card Game?
So does Bob Henley, the man who would not stop waving his arm around 3B. 😂 pic.twitter.com/MxJ3upaBsW
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) January 12, 2020