Washington Nationals finally write a happy playoff ending: ‘We’re not going home’
USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Gardner breaks down the divisional series match up between the Nationals and Dodgers.
WASHINGTON — This time, the pratfall never came.
This time, the Washington Nationals were the beneficiary, not the butt, of baseball’s cruelest October gags.
And on a night that looked and sounded and felt so much like three daggers to the heart of a burgeoning franchise, the Nationals discovered that maybe, if you hang around long enough, the punishment baseball metes out eventually abates.
On Tuesday night, Nationals Park hosted the first wild-card game in its history, and the fourth winner-take-all playoff game since this run of franchise excellence began in 2012.
The Nationals led every single one of those decisive Division Series Game 5s, only for so many Lucys disguised as Pete Kozma in 2012 or Joc Pederson in 2016 or Addison Russell in 2017 to pull the football away before they could secure a series victory.
Game 1 is Thursday, and Patrick Corbin will pitch, because he was the only of the Nationals’ three 200-strikeout studs who were not called upon in this game.
Those details could wait a day. For just a moment, the Nationals had to bask in the glory of everything actually going their way.
Throughout the clubhouse, there was a deference to the 2012 and ’16 and ’17 teams, careful to note that those squads weren’t necessarily less resolute than this bunch that overcame a 19-31 start to win 93 games.
No, they insisted, it wasn’t about choking as much as chance.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve played bad in these games before. We just haven’t really caught any breaks,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the 14-year veteran and original Nationals draft pick who was here for all the previous collapses – and then keyed the mini-exorcism in the eighth inning. “Tonight, we caught a couple breaks, got a little lucky and it takes that in the playoffs sometimes.
“Maybe this is it. Maybe it isn’t. Who knows? All I can say is that this is a pretty fun team to watch.”
The Nationals scratched out three runs off Hader with just one hard-hit ball. Instead, they relied on something resembling kismet.
A fastball from Hader that clipped Taylor’s arm — just an instant, apparently, before it struck the bat.
A broken-bat blooper from Zimmerman — the first true Nationals star since their 2005 inception — that fell well in front of Gold Glove center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
“He was due — we were due, I think, to get one of those,” noted general manager Mike Rizzo, fusing the smaller picture of Zimmerman’s flare with the larger, tortured franchise past.
From his perch in the Nationals bullpen, closer Daniel Hudson could sense something was afoot.
“You could just feel it building, feel it coming, man,” says Hudson, who had been summoned to warm up three times already as the Nationals fell in a 3-0 hole. “(Hader) is probably the toughest left-handed reliever in the game, but for whatever reason, he just didn’t have that bite on his slider.
“It was awesome to watch from my perspective.”
Yet, even Hudson couldn’t believe what unfolded next, right in front of his bullpen perch.
Juan Soto, the Nationals’ wise-beyond-his-years 20-year-old slugger, smoked a 95-mph Hader fastball to right field. Nationals Park rumbled. Andrew Stevenson, pinch-running for Zimmerman, would score easily.
Yet Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham approached the ball too aggressively, and it skirted under his legs.
Rendon rumbled home with the go-ahead run. Soto was ultimately tagged out on the play and Hudson — stunningly, suddenly with a lead to protect — had to stop watching and go save the game.
It was impossible for the Nationals not to view this game as a microcosm of their season, nearly sunk by a bullpen that finished the year with a 5.68 ERA, worst of any team to earn a playoff spot.
Hudson’s July 31 acquisition helped calm the waters. The punishing Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin troika always gave them a chance. And a 74-33 finish propelled them into the playoffs with more momentum than any club.
“I never doubted this team. We were 19-31,” says Rizzo. “To the outside world, the world was coming to an end for the Nats. I feel good about this team, I think it’s a character team, I think it’s a team that the best is yet to come.”
There’s no erasing history. For a night, at least, the Nationals moved forward with something they can cherish.
“To me, those are in the past. They sting, obviously,” says Zimmerman. “But if I’ve told you I thought about those, I don’t think about those.”
He’ll probably think about this night a little more.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques.