After the grind of 162, season comes down to one game

There are very few flukes in baseball. This sport requires every team to play 162 games, and after 162 games the best teams almost always emerge from the pack and prove their worthiness over others.

Some clubs get off to hot starts, then are exposed over the long haul. Others need some time to come together before going on a sustained run. Some are fortunate enough to play at a consistently effective rate straight through from opening day to the season finale.

Point is, after 162 games we know who’s legitimately good and who isn’t. If you reach the postseason in baseball, you earned it.

Which is exactly what the 2019 Nationals did. Despite a harrowing 19-31 start that created plenty of seeds of doubt outside the clubhouse, they found their true selves over the next four months and finished with a 93-69 record, third-best in the National League behind only the Dodgers (106-56) and Braves (97-65).

The Nationals are a very good team, and they proved it over the course of 162 games. The only problem: Tonight that doesn’t matter one bit. Tonight this very good team faces elimination just as its postseason run begins.

Welcome to the wild card game, Washington. You’re either going to love it or absolutely despise it by night’s end.

“That’s the beauty of this game,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s a one-game playoff, and that’s what you look forward to.”

This, of course, is brand new territory for a Nationals franchise that four times in the previous seven years won the NL East and thus a guaranteed best-of-five Division Series. No, they never managed to win one of those series, but at least when they took the field for Game 1 each time they didn’t have to worry about their season potentially ending three hours later.

Scherzer-Fires-White-Side-Sidebar.jpgThey do have to worry about that at 8:08 p.m. tonight, when Max Scherzer takes the mound to face the Brewers and a sellout crowd on South Capitol Street gears up for yet another winner-take-all October showdown, this time with a twist.

“The atmosphere is going to be intense,” said Scherzer, who previously pitched in two do-or-die NLDS Game 5’s in this ballpark. “Nats fans have really come out. The (2016) game against the Dodgers, the crowd was absolutely nuts. And the (2017) game against the Cubs. We’ve had heartbreaks in those games. Hopefully, tomorrow’s different.”

Who knows if the result will be different? Check back around 11:30 p.m. We do know, however, that the scene will be very different from anything baseball fans in this town have ever experienced.

There’s no opportunity for guys to get their feet wet. No time to feel each other out. No chance to get a read on the opposing starter in hopes of putting together quality at-bats against him later in the game. This is high pressure, high stakes right from the moment Scherzer throws his first pitch.

“I think the goal is to try to treat it as normal as possible,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Have some fun. I think that’s the main thing.”

No two teams are ever the same, and the only thing the 2019 Nationals have in common with the 2012 Nationals are Zimmerman, Suzuki and Stephen Strasburg. The first two played in the heartbreaking Game 5 loss to the Cardinals. Strasburg was there but wasn’t on the active roster, having been shut down by the organization one month earlier as part of his post-Tommy John surgery recovery plan.

But if there was a common trait among the Nats’ four previous playoff clubs, it was perhaps a reputation for getting tight in the games’ biggest moments. Tim Hudson, pitching for the Giants at the time, openly questioned his opponents’ toughness before the 2014 NLDS.

This year’s squad, though, managed to forge an entirely new identity compared to that of its predecessors. This was the team that had fun every single day, win or lose. This was the team that played loose. This was the team that danced after every home run, even getting the stoic Strasburg to participate following an unexpected July blast in Atlanta.

So while the outside world has panic attacks about the potential for disaster tonight, the Nationals just see another opportunity to play ball and enjoy the ride.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on our players,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I just want them to go out there and continue to play the way they’ve been playing. I told them right now it’s Game 163. That’s the way we’re going to approach it. And every day, the message that’s been here all year with me: Go 1-0. Stay in the moment. Stay in the here and now.”

It all sounds so simple, but then they have to actually put that mindset into practice on the biggest stage they’ve experienced all season. This is the only ballgame on the schedule today. It’s opening night for the postseason, and anyone who cares at all about baseball is going to be watching.

The Nationals also acknowledge they have no choice but to approach this game differently than any other they have played or will play this year. They have to be willing to use anyone and everyone on the roster who might help carry them to victory.

That means not only Scherzer on the mound to start the game, but potentially Strasburg and/or Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen to relieve the ace. That means a bench full of veterans getting an opportunity to make a difference in a big spot late. That means somebody from the majors’ most maligned bullpen - most likely Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson - recording critical outs in the final innings.

“It’s one game,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to win this game. Everybody’s going to be ready whenever they’re called upon.”

Yes, the Nationals need to make sure someone’s still available for a potential Game 1 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium. But they can’t fly out west for Thursday night’s series opener if they can’t first find a way to win tonight.

This is the danger of the wild card game. One bad inning, one bad pitch, one mistake in the field and everything this team did for the last six months goes up in smoke.

Is this really a fair assignment for a 93-win team that proved its worth over 162 games? No, it’s not. But nobody’s complaining about that.

“Play better during the season and win the division. That’s the way I think of it,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re rewarded for winning the division. It’s a tougher road, certainly, to go into the playoff scenario as a wild card. But I think that’s as planned. If gives you real reason to win the division.”

The Nationals, of course, didn’t win their division. They had a chance to catch the Braves late in the summer but they could not make up enough ground to make things interesting, at least not until after Atlanta had already clinched, at which point the Nats finally got to within four games of first place on the season’s final day.

The Braves proved they were the better team over 162, and so they now get to play a best-of-five with the Central-winning Cardinals. The runner-up Nationals and Brewers? It doesn’t matter how well they played to get here. One of them will see their impressive season end tonight, just as the postseason is getting started.

“We’ve won four divisions and haven’t won the World Series with that route,” Rizzo said. “Maybe this is the route. Grind out ‘til the last game, come into the playoffs hot, not with a three- or four-day layover like we’ve had in the past. Maybe this is the road to success for us.”

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