The path was different this time, very different.
There was no division title, no early September clinch, no chance to turn on the cruise control and enjoy the nice, smooth ride to the postseason.
No, this time the Nationals had to earn it. They had to come all the way back from a 19-31 start that left more than a few observers wondering if major changes were about to take place. They had to go on a remarkable run that saw them play at a .645 clip for four full months that still wasn’t enough to chase down a Braves team that ran away with its second straight National League East crown.
The only path this time was via the wild card, a dangerous path but one that at least gives teams a chance to play all the way through October. The 2019 Nationals now have that chance.
Thanks to a doubleheader sweep of the Phillies that included a timely grand slam by Trea Turner, and thanks to a late seven-run rally by the dead-in-the-water Pirates against the Cubs, the Nationals clinched their fifth postseason berth in eight years tonight.
They will play in the NL wild card game next Tuesday, most likely against the Brewers, either here on South Capitol Street or in Milwaukee. The winner of that do-or-die game will advance to the best-of-five NL Division Series against the best-in-the-league Dodgers.
“We’re one of few,” general manager Mike Rizzo said inside a beer-and-champagne-soaked clubhouse. “It gives us a puncher’s chance to win this thing.”
The Nationals took plenty of punches to the gut over the course of this roller coaster season, many of them inflicted by their leaky bullpen. But on the day they needed to win both ends of a doubleheader to clinch a playoff berth, that group tossed a combined eight scoreless innings, with only one Phillies batter reaching base.
Daniel Hudson, one of three July 31 acquisitions tasked with helping shore things up, was the man on the mound recording the final three outs of both of today’s games. He retired the side this afternoon to lock up a 4-1 victory. And then he retired the side tonight to seal a 6-5 nightcap and put his team on the cusp of a clinch, a scenario he never envisioned when he made the move from Toronto to Washington two months ago.
“Absolutely not,” the veteran right-hander said with a laugh. “You’ve seen my track record. It’s not very good in the ninth inning. But I told Davey (Martinez) when I got here: I’m good to go for whatever he needs me to do. And it just kind of evolved into the ninth inning in the last couple weeks.”
The Nationals had to wait just a minute longer after Hudson recorded the final out for it to become official. But once Kyle Schwarber grounded out to second at PNC Park, shown live on the scoreboard here in D.C., the magic number was zero and the Nats could party.
“It was emotional,” said Martinez, the second-year manager who heard the calls for his head after an 82-80 debut season and then the 19-31 start this year. “We wish it would have been over before our game was over, but it was a good feeling. These guys deserve everything they got so far. They played their butts off all year long, and now we’re going to the postseason.”
After taking care of business in this afternoon’s opener, a comfortable victory that officially eliminated the Phillies, the Nationals knew they would at least have a chance to wrap this thing up tonight. They also knew that would require not only a winning performance in the nightcap but some help in Pittsburgh, where a Pirates club that had lost nine in a row would need to beat a Cubs team reeling from six consecutive losses to put its season on the brink.
Neither side cooperated early on. The Cubs took a 1-0 lead and watched as Kyle Hendricks carried a no-hitter into the sixth. The Nationals, meanwhile, dug themselves into a 4-0 hole behind two most surprising swings off Max Scherzer.
Brad Miller, the Phillies’ .228-hitting cleanup hitter with both Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins sitting this one out, belted an 0-1 fastball from Scherzer to center field for a three-run homer in the top of the first. It was the first three-run blast the Nats ace had surrendered since April 4, 2018, when the Braves’ Preston Tucker took him deep.
And Miller wasn’t done tormenting Scherzer. He stepped up to bat again in the top of the fourth and promptly crushed a changeup to right-center for his second homer in as many at-bats, leaving the crowd (and the guy on the mound) in a temporary state of shock.
Thing was, Scherzer actually wasn’t pitching poorly. He wound up allowing only five hits in six innings, two of those infield singles. He struck out 10 while walking only one.
“I feel great. I feel sharp,” said Scherzer, who made it back from a pair of back injuries this summer. “I feel like I’m really built for 100 pitches right now. I feel like I’m still executing better than ever. ... I was finishing this start stronger, even from pitch 90 on. So that just shows you I’m continuing to make strides in where I’m at. And I feel really good about going forward in the playoffs.”
Alas, those two big swings by Miller completely altered Scherzer’s final pitching line tonight, not to mention left the Nats in a 4-1 hole.
And so it didn’t appear as though tonight would be the night. Except then the bats came alive in both Pittsburgh and Washington, and so did the crowd on South Capitol Street. As the Pirates were piling up seven runs in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals were loading the bases in the bottom of the sixth.
And when Turner launched an 0-1 sinker from Jared Hughes deep to left field, this ballpark exploded. Just like that, the speedy leadoff man with surprising pop had delivered his second career grand slam. And just like that, the Nationals had taken a 6-4 lead and were nine outs away from a clinch.
“You just scream,” said Turner, who received a curtain call. “I don’t even know what to do other than scream. We knew what was on the line. And it was a big hit.”
It was not over yet, of course, because the Nationals still needed their bullpen to procure those nine outs. And they would need to do that after four regular members of the pen (Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Sean Doolittle, Hudson) were used in the afternoon game.
So it was Hunter Strickland to pitch the seventh, which included the long-awaited, bizarro-world rematch between the hard-throwing righty and Harper. The history, for those who have forgotten: Harper, playing for the Nats, homered twice off Strickland, pitching for the Giants, in the 2014 NL Division Series. Three years later, Strickland intentionally drilled Harper with a pitch, setting off a benches-clearing brawl and suspensions.
The two did meet last year, and it was a ho-hum affair with Strickland retiring Harper. But now that they’ve switched uniforms, this was a highly anticipated reunion, with local fans suddenly rooting for the villain. What happened? What usually happens when these two meet. Strickland fell behind in the count 3-1, then grooved a fastball over the plate. Harper destroyed it, sending the ball 442 feet to right-center field to trim the Nats’ lead to 6-5.
That, however, was a mere footnote on this night. This night belonged not to Harper and the Phillies. It belonged to the Nationals, who are heading back to the postseason. They may have taken a more arduous path this time, but they’re in again. And so they again have a chance to play in October.
“We’re here. There’s still a path for us to win it all,” Scherzer said. “We’re going to get tested like we’ve never been tested during the regular season. But I love what this team has together. I love our chemistry. I love what we have. That’s what it takes to win in the postseason.”
TREA. TURNER. pic.twitter.com/zw8X2OJmjv-- Nationals on MASN (@masnNationals) September 25, 2019