That’s why you don’t want to land in the wild-card game. If you lose, you’re gone from the playoffs having barely arrived. If you win, you’re so wrung out that the Division Series is even more of an uphill slog.
The Washington Nationals, who’d never won a postseason round, have won one now. (No, one game shouldn’t constitute a round, but take that up with MLB.) For the #Natitude crew, this marked a major accomplishment. But Tuesday’s wrenching 4-3 victory — the Nats didn’t take a single at-bat while leading — came at the cost of burning both Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who surely won’t be available for the NLDS against the mighty Dodgers until Games 3 and 4, if then.
That’s not to say Dave Martinez, the Washington manager, played it wrong. There’s only one way to play a postseason opener that’s also an elimination game, and that’s to invest everything in winning it. Where Martinez erred was in believing that the Scherzer of the past few years is the Scherzer of now. He had a 5.16 ERA and yielded six homers in five September starts. On Wednesday, the Nats were down 3-0 after six batters, two of whom homered.
It worked out because Strasburg, who’d never pitched in relief, provided three scoreless innings and the usual members of the Nats’ bullpen — the worst in baseball this season — saw their workload reduced to three outs. (Daniel Hudson managed a scoreless ninth.) It’s unclear if the formula of using two starting pitchers for eight innings can be replicated over a best-of-five against a much better team than Milwaukee, but at least Washington gets to find out.
As rousing a victory as this was, it would have been an utterly horrible loss. The Brewers performed a September miracle — they were 71-68 three days after Labor Day — to make the playoffs. They seized on a bunny closing schedule to blow past the folding Cubs and made the Cardinals sweat until the season’s final day. They’d been working for three weeks without Christian Yelich, their best player by 10 miles, and it was an error by rookie Trent Grisham, manning right field because Yelich was absent, that allowed the Nats’ winning run to score.
Fans of the underdog — aren’t we all? — were pulling for Milwaukee on Wednesday, the same as we pull for a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament. When the lower seed does win, it’s fun for a day and a half. Then the lower seed plays again and, almost without fail, gets blown out. Had the Brewers held their lead in D.C., they would have been sweep fodder for the Dodgers. Even in their depleted state, the Nats can give L.A. a go.
Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez — the latter of whom started Game 2 in Los Angeles for the Braves last year– figure to get Games 1 and 2 in Dodger Stadium. The scary part of the Division Series is that a split of the first two games leaves the higher seed in danger of being sent home without playing another home game. As splendid as the Dodgers are, the thought of facing Strasburg and Scherzer in Games 3 and 4 of a tied series would be nerve-jangling.
If you’re the Braves — or, to be fair, the St. Louis Cardinals — you’re watching Dodgers-Nats with keen interest. Somebody’s going to play the winner; either would prefer the Nationals. That could happen. Best-of-fives are more perilous than best-of-sevens. A road victory in Game 1 or 2 would change the dynamics. It could throw open the National League side of the bracket.
The Dodgers won 106 games, 13 more than Washington. And yet: FanGraphs gives L.A. a 52.7 percent chance — roughly a coin flip — of winning the NLDS, which is worse than the Braves’ chances (53.5 percent) against the Cardinals. The Nats were lucky to outlast callow Milwaukee, but simply by remaining alive they’ve become a live underdog. From April on, we’ve assumed any path to the World Series for an NL club would lead through Dodger Stadium. What if it doesn’t?
We’re two days into the month, and already we’ve been reminded that, in October, nobody knows anything. Today we’re talking about the Nationals’ chances against the Dodgers, but think how close the D.C. club was to sacking up its bats.
With one out in the eighth, Josh Hader threw a 97-mph fastball that hit both the knob of Michael Taylor’s bat and Taylor’s wrist. Umpires deemed it a hit-by-pitch. Milwaukee challenged. Replay neither confirmed nor overruled, meaning the on-field decision stood. One out later, another Hader heater splintered Ryan Zimmerman’s bat. The resulting blooper dropped in front of center fielder Lorenzo Cain. Anthony Rendon worked a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Then Juan Soto lined the single that, after Grisham’s error, cleared the bases and won the game.
As much as we might believe that, with the presumably better team prevailing, justice was served … well, was it? A close call goes one way, as opposed to the other. An overpowering pitch yields not an out but a life-giving single. A rookie lets a line drive slip under his glove. The Nats head to L.A.; the Brewers play no more. October baseball: There’s nothing quite like it. There’s nothing even close.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.