Home confinement re-watch: 2019 NL wild card game

There’s no baseball to watch right now, at least no live baseball. And there’s not going to be any for a while. So how do we get our fix during this most unusual time in our lives? We watch old baseball games.

There’s a whole treasure trove of classic games available out there. And at some point, we might just get to them all. But for now, where better to begin than with the most recent games the Nationals played?

Yes, it’s time to re-watch - and re-live - the 2019 postseason. The plan is to watch all 17 games from last October, even the losses. But that plan - just like everything else in the world at this moment - is subject to change.

Of course, I originally watched all 17 of those games in person, from the press box. I’d catch a nearby TV monitor for some key replays, but aside from watching specific highlights after the fact, I haven’t watched the entire broadcasts from start to finish until now.

The idea of this exercise is to gain a new appreciation for the Nats’ remarkable run, maybe pick up on some things I didn’t pick up the first time around. I’m also going back in my Twitter feed to follow along in real time (including the replies), and re-reading my game stories.

The postseason kicked off with one of the best games of the entire run, and arguably the single best moment not only of the 2019 run but of the entire franchise’s history. So here it is: a re-watch of the 2019 National League wild card game, some 5 1/2 months later ...

The TBS broadcast begins with some particularly interesting comments by the announcers. Ron Darling’s very first comment is to bring up the Nats’ 19-31 start. (It won’t be the last time that record is invoked over the ensuing month.) Ernie Johnson points out that wild card game starter Max Scherzer hasn’t won a playoff game since signing with the Nationals four years earlier. Jeff Francoeur, in outlining the Brewers’ pitching plan for the game, gets to Josh Hader and proclaims: “You know they want to get the ball to this guy.” (He meant the Brewers, not the Nats.)

Two other surprising observations before the first pitch was thrown: It was 83 degrees on Oct. 1 in D.C.! And the Nationals were wearing their traditional white jerseys and red caps, a combo they would wear only one more time in the postseason (Game 3 of the NL Division Series).

The crowd, all decked out in red, was hyped for the start of the game. There’s a different kind of vibe in the park when it’s an elimination game, even when it’s the first game of the postseason. Everyone seemed to understand what was at stake that night, and everyone wanted to believe this winner-take-all game on South Capitol Street would be different from all the previous ones that ended in misery.

Then the game began, and the mood quickly turned south. Scherzer burst out of the gates with too much energy. His first three pitches to Trent Grisham (remember that name) registered 97, 98 and 99 mph. And the at-bat ended with a walk.

Making matters worse, Scherzer’s very next pitch - a 98 mph fastball to Yasmani Grandal - was belted into the right field bullpen for a two-run homer. Just like that, the Nats were down 2-0 and the crowd had a distinct “Oh no, here we go again” look.

And it kept getting worse. Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff retired the side in the bottom of the first with a blazing fastball that twice reached 100 mph. And then Scherzer’s second pitch of the top of the second - a backdoor curveball - was lofted deep to right-center and over the fence for a solo homer by someone named Eric Thames. (Hey, at least we know the guy’s got some serious pop now that he plays for the local club.)

So it’s 3-0 Milwaukee in the second inning, and now everybody’s questioning Davey Martinez’s decision to start Scherzer instead of Stephen Strasburg. One notable silver lining, though: The Brewers were so aggressive early in the count against Scherzer, he threw only 28 pitches to the game’s first 10 batters. That may have played a significant role in Martinez’s pitching decisions as the night progressed.

Scherzer would find his groove after that. He struck out the side in the third on only 10 pitches. He completed the fourth with a total pitch count of 51, and that total might’ve been lower had Juan Soto not misplayed Thames’ long fly to the track in left field in the top of the fourth, prolonging the inning.

The Nationals, though, couldn’t get anything going at the plate against Woodruff, who kept throwing fastballs that registered anywhere from 98-100 mph. Only Trea Turner made solid contact, turning on a high heater in the bottom of the third for a solo homer that briefly got the crowd back into it. Turner also became the first Nats player to experience a postseason dugout dance party. (It was fairly muted compared to future ones.)

Woodruff would be done after four innings and 52 pitches, handing over the rest of the game to the Brewers’ superior bullpen. Scherzer would actually outlast his counterpart, completing five innings on 77 pitches, though by the time he stalked off the mound both Strasburg and Daniel Hudson were warming in the ‘pen. Hudson was perhaps one batter away from replacing Scherzer mid-inning, and can you imagine how that might have altered the course of the game in hindsight?

The Nationals thought they had something going in the bottom of the fifth when Victor Robles produced a two-out single and then Brian Dozier (pinch-hitting for Scherzer) ripped a hot shot to third and legged out an infield single when Mike Moustakas’ throw across the diamond pulled Thames off the bag. (Though it would take a couple agonizing minutes of a replay review before the call was upheld.)

The potential rally would fizzle after that, but Robles’ two-out single proved important in the end. Why? Because in reaching base, he enabled the pitcher’s spot to come up to bat in the fifth, turning the lineup over. Had Robles made the third out, Strasburg would’ve been leading off the sixth. Or Martinez would’ve needed to double-switch somebody else out of the lineup to account for that. Or maybe he would’ve had Hudson pitch the sixth and waited until the seventh to use Strasburg. Again, who knows how that would’ve played out in an alternate universe.

The crowd welcomed Strasburg to the mound for the first relief appearance of his professional career with a roar, and the big righty kept the ballpark buzzing with a dominant performance. He gave up a quick single to Ryan Braun in the sixth but immediately wiped that out by breaking Thames’ bat and inducing a 6-4-3 double play. He cruised through the seventh and also the eighth, ultimately needing only 34 pitches to record three scoreless frames and keep the deficit at 3-1.

Still, though, the Nats couldn’t get anything going at the plate. Drew Pomeranz carved them up in the sixth and seventh, making Anthony Rendon and Soto look bad on back-to-back strikeouts. Those two big bats were a combined 0-for-6 on the night, and the crowd was beginning to look distraught.

Ah, but you know what happened once the bottom of the eighth arrived.

It’s important to remember, though, that the rally took some time to develop. Robles chased a high 3-2 fastball from Hader for strike three and the first out. And though Michael A. Taylor reached base after taking a fastball off his left wrist - again, only after an agonizing review while officials in New York checked to see if the pitch actually struck the knob of Taylor’s bat first - Turner then chased a fastball well out of the zone for strike three and the second out of the inning.

The Nationals didn’t have much going at this point, but there were positive signs. Most notably: Hader could not locate his slider anywhere near the strike zone. Batters realized they could sit on his fastball. They just had to make sure he threw it over the plate and not chase heaters above the letters.

The crowd roared as Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate to pinch-hit for Adam Eaton, rising to give the Face of the Franchise a standing ovation. Were those folks expecting Zimmerman to come through in the clutch, or were they recognizing this might be his final at-bat in a Nationals uniform?

The ensuing at-bat might well be the most underrated moment of the entire game, possibly the entire postseason. Hader came inside with a fastball and sawed Zimmerman’s bat in half. But the old man managed to swing with enough force that he got the ball to carry over the shortstop’s head and into shallow center field for the two-out, broken bat single that kept the inning alive. We tend to think of broken bat hits as lucky, and maybe they are. But if Zimmerman doesn’t get enough muscle on that swing, the ball might well have floated into the shortstop’s glove, ending the inning. He shrugged it off as he rounded first and made the little “Baby Shark” chomp motion toward the dugout, but it was a significant part of the rally.

Next came a really impressive at-bat from Rendon, his first of the night. He laid off three pitches out of the zone, wound up facing a full count and then laid off a high fastball for ball four to load the bases and drive Hader’s pitch count up to a whopping 27. Remember, it’s still only the eighth inning. Even if Hader escapes this inning, he’s got to return to pitch the ninth. Or Craig Counsell has to turn to someone else for the save.

Soto-Rounds-Second-White-WC-Sidebar.jpgNot that it mattered in the end, because that’s when Soto made history. The winning hit came on a 1-1 fastball, but the preceding pitch set the stage for it. With the count 0-1, Hader tried to get Soto to chase a slider. Like all his other sliders in the inning, it was nowhere near the strike zone. And that’s when we saw our first Soto Shuffle of October. He kicked dirt, looked at Hader and smiled. The kid knew he had him right where he wanted him. Hader’s only hope was to throw a fastball. And Soto was ready for it.

The 95-mph heater was over the plate but in the zone. Soto took a mighty-but-level cut and ripped the ball toward right field. The crowd immediately reacted, understanding the game was about to be tied. And then the ball skipped past a charging Grisham and rolled into no-man’s land in deep right field, and now the crowd let out the second roar, even louder than the first, because everyone suddenly understood the Nats weren’t about to tie the game. They were about to lead the game.

It all happened so fast. Taylor scored from third. Andrew Stevenson (pinch-running for Zimmerman) scored from second. Rendon scored from first to make it 4-3, but then Soto got himself caught up between second and third and was tagged out to end the inning. Was it a stupid play on his part, or did he do it on purpose, trying to draw the throw so the go-ahead run could score without a play at the plate? He would claim the latter.

Whatever the case, Nationals Park nearly came apart at the seams. Players spilled out of the dugout to cheer, unable to contain themselves. Fans in the bleachers hurled beer cups into the sky, creating an indelible image. Soto just kept yelling “Let’s go!” over and over as the teams switched sides. There wasn’t even time for TBS to show a full replay before going to commercial.

The next thing you knew, Hudson was on the mound for the ninth, the Nats three outs away from winning the game. And he wasn’t out there for long. He struck out Thames on a 98 mph fastball away. He gave up a one-out single to Lorenzo Cain but then got Orlando Arcia to foul out behind the plate on the next pitch, and now there were two outs and the crowd wouldn’t let up.

Ben Gamel came up to bat for the Brewers, and after taking ball one drove Hudson’s 1-0 pitch to center. For just a split-second, the crowd gasped. Then everyone saw Robles camp under the ball just in front of the warning track, make the catch, peel off his cap and pump his fist with it as fireworks exploded overhead.

Soto’s season-saving hit occurred at 10:56 p.m. Gamel’s fly ball landed in Robles’ glove at 11:04 p.m. That’s only eight minutes. Eight minutes from the hit that turned the entire game around to the final out. In person, it felt like eight seconds.

On the broadcast, the analysts put this outcome into greater perspective.

“Finally, something good happens to the Nationals here in this ballpark,” Darling said.

“This has been an organization that has felt snakebit,” Francoeur said. “Tonight, you feel like they finally got rid of that a little bit.”

More than a little bit. The Nats may not officially have gotten over the hump until eight nights later in Los Angeles, but on this warm early October evening in D.C. they let the baseball world know past postseason failures meant nothing anymore. This team was different.

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