The Milwaukee Brewers had it. They had it! For seven-plus innings, their pitchers successfully shut the Nationals down with a steady diet of high heat, and preserved a two-run lead that started to feel like 50 or 100 runs as the game progressed. The Brewers got to Josh Hader in the bottom of the eighth inning still holding that two-run lead, which should’ve been the end. It was not the end! The Nationals scraped together some baserunners, and then lightning struck, and the Brewers will have all winter to figure out what the hell just happened.
Milwaukee’s lead was gained when the Brewers socked a pair of dingers in the first two innings off Washington starter Max Scherzer. Scherzer was amped—his second pitch roared in at 99 miles per hour—but he had a rough second half of the season, and Tuesday night he was not his best self. The Brewers, who seemed to have a mandate to attack early in the count, made him pay.
The Nationals grabbed back a run in the third inning on a Trea Turner solo shot to left, but for the most part their batters were too easily tempted by fastballs above the strike zone, and by the fifth inning they were taking uppercut haymaker swings at anything chest high or higher. That’s not the worst possible sign of baseball demoralization, but it’s bad. Milwaukee reliever Drew Pomeranz sailed through the sixth and seventh innings on 30 pitches, setting up Hader, one of baseball’s toughest pitchers, for a six-out save.
All night long the Nationals struggled to put runners on base early in innings, but they finally broke through on that front when Hader yanked a 3-2 fastball into the hand of pinch hitter Michael A. Taylor, with one down in the eighth. The ball appeared to simultaneously strike Taylor and the knob of the bat, but umpires determined via review that it primarily struck Taylor’s hand, and anyway it would be bullshit if a guy was credited with a foul ball when he didn’t even swing, and still absorbed a 97-mph fastball with his tender hand bones.
Trea Turner struck out on another high heater in the next at-bat, bringing another pinch-hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, to the plate. Zimmerman mostly laid off the high stuff, and fought off a deadly fastball sizzling in on his hands for an unlikely broken-bat single to center. Taylor, running on contact, went first to third. This brought Anthony Rendon to the plate. Rendon, in the first disciplined Nationals at-bat of the entire evening, laid off Hader’s electric high stuff and worked a six-pitch walk to load the bases.
Hader was now at 27 pitches, and his slider was nowhere close, and he appeared to be a little scattershot locating the catcher’s mitt on those high fastballs. Juan Soto, Washington’s 20-year-old cleanup hitter, fouled off a juicy first-pitch fastball, then watched Hader miss outside on a slider by a good 12 inches. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Soto smoked a single to right field. Taylor came in to score from third; Andrew Stevenson, pinch-running for Zimmerman, was chugging home from second with the potential tying run. Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham charged in on the ball to give himself a chance to nab Stevenson at the plate. Here’s how that went:
A brutal misplay by Grisham cleared the bases, although Soto was thrown out in the confusion to end the inning. Despite having no offensive punch all game long, the Nationals suddenly found themselves up a run with three outs to go. This is still a terrifying spot for Nationals fans—they’ve had one of the worst bullpens in baseball all season, and they have by far the worst bullpen of any team to make the postseason. Nationals manager Davey Martinez made the unconventional choice to use reliever Daniel Hudson instead of All-Star closer Sean Doolittle, which made this situation even more terrifying.
Hudson surrendered a one-out single to Lorenzo Cain, but the Brewers, who had the vacant, thousand-yard stares typical of athletes who’ve had victory cruelly yanked away at the last possible moment, failed to muster a late rally. Unbelievably, the Washington Nationals won an elimination game at home to advance in the postseason. This guy here perfectly summed up the experience of every Nats fan in the world, right up until Soto and Grisham delivered an improbable reversal of fortune:
Poor Trent Grisham will remember that play for the rest of his life. Grisham’s night started with a leadoff walk and the game’s first run, but ended with a breathtaking mistake in the game’s biggest moment, when all he had to do was get the ball to the infield to at least preserve the tie. Just a brutal, devastating way to lose a Wild Card game.