The Brewers are making history by making the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1982, but their opponent in the NL Wild Card game is also looking to make history themselves.
The Washington Nationals, famously after several very public heartbreaks, have never won a playoff series. Whether you consider the Wild Card game a series or not (and the grammar stickler in me wants to scream BY DEFINITION ONE GAME CANNOT BE A SERIES, WORDS HAVE MEANINGS, but I digress), it’s hard to ignore that as one of the potential intangible factors in this game.
There’s plenty of reason for the Nationals to believe this year is different, though.
After all, you’d have a hard time finding a hotter team entering the playoffs, let alone as a wildcard. The reason this game isn’t being played in Milwaukee despite the Brewers’ hot September is because Washington has been just as hot — they enter tonight on an 8-game win streak, and have won 12 of their last 15 games. They were nearly 20 games over .500 in the second half, and went 74-36 after starting the year an abysmal 19-31.
Health had a lot to do with it — there were a lot of important players hurt early in the year that were able to come back strong.
Trea Turner ended up playing only 122 games this season, but bounced back from a somewhat disappotining 2018, hitting .298/.353/.497 with 19 home runs, 37 doubles and 35 steals in 40 tries at the top of the lineup.
Anthony Rendon may be the most coveted bat on the free agent market this winter if he doesn’t take the Nationals’ rumored extension offer of more then $200 million first. He’s a down ballot MVP candidate after hitting .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs, 44 doubles, and a 153 OPS+.
Juan Soto tied Rendon for the team lead in home runs with 34 at just 20 years old, also showing impressive patience for a hitter that young by putting up a .282/.401/.548 line in 150 games.
It’s not just that “Big Three” that powered the Nats’ improbable run -- to be that good, you need plenty of contributions from role players, and that’s exactly what they got. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes combined for 29 home runs behind the plate. Howie Kendrick has a .966 OPS as a 35-year-old utility player, hitting 17 home runs (nearly matching a career high of 18 set in 2011). Another veteran infielder, Asdrubal Cabrera, has put up a .969 OPS in 38 games since joining the team. Brian Dozier and Matt Adams both reached 20 home runs.
The lineup may not be as deep as the Dodgers’, but it’s still no picnic -- as the Brewers have experienced themselves already this year.
Brandon Woodruff vs. Max Scherzer
For the first time since becoming a full-time starter in 2009 for Arizona, Scherzer did not make 30 starts this year. Now 34, the multi-time Cy Young winner and one of the best pitchers of his generation hit a couple bumps in the road when it came to injuries this year.
Not that it slowed him down all that much. Even an aging, slightly hurting Max Scherzer is better than most pitchers -- he was able to put up an ERA+ of 157 in 172.1 innings this year, striking out 243 batters in 27 starts with a 2.92 ERA. His 12.69 K/9 was still the highest in the National League -- by far, actually, with Robbie Ray coming in a distant second at 12.13. His 7.36 K/BB ratio was also not only the best in the NL, but the best in the majors.
So clearly, the strikeout numbers have remained impressive, as the Brewers saw firsthand when they faced him on May 6th at Miller Park and he struck out 10 Brewers while only walking 1 and allowing 2 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits. But he’s been less efficient with his pitches at times this year, with the high strikeout totals also racking up high pitch counts.
That was the case in his first meeting with the Brewers this year, as he left the game after 112 pitches in 6 innings with the score tied at 2. The Brewers proceeded to take the lead against Old Friend Dan Jennings and Wander Suero in the 7th inning and went on to win the game.
The gameplan for the Brewers might be similar tonight. Scherzer will probably get his, at least in the strikeout department, but if they can keep his pitch count up, they could possibly chase him after 5 or 6 innings and 110-120 pitches. Of course, the Nationals have said Stephen Strasburg and even Patrick Corbin could follow Scherzer, so it’s not like chasing Scherzer early would mean getting the underbelly of the extremely poor Nationals bullpen -- but at least the Brewers have shown the ability to outlast Scherzer before.
It should also be noted that Scherzer has not exactly been unbeatable since returning to action in late August. He has a 4.74 ERA in 7 starts since coming back from a month off on August 22nd, allowing 20 runs on 36 hits (8 of them home runs) in 38 innings. Half of his starts in September saw him give up 4 or more runs, which given Washington’s playoff history, might be enough to cause a wave of panic in Nationals Park if it happens in a do-or-die game.
The Brewers have seen both versions of the 2019 Nationals -- the early-season version that looked like another massive disappointment and had people calling for Davey Martinez’s job, and the late-season juggernaut that steamrolled its way to the top Wild Card spot.
When the Brewers saw Washington visit Miller Park in early May, the Nats were near rock bottom -- but not quite there yet. A walking wounded crew without Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman that had just fired its pitching coach, the Nationals were 14-22 after getting swept by the Brewers in a largely non-competitive series. That gave them the second-worst record in the National League, just four games ahead of the Marlins -- who they had actually lost a series to to that point.
The Nationals were a much different team by August, as evidenced by the series in DC.
Corbin out-dueled Adrian Houser in the series’ first game, with Washington scoring an 8th inning run off Junior Guerra to take a 2-1 win. The next day, the Brewers were able to survive what might be the most ridiculous game of the season, a 15-14 win in 14 innings. The Nationals would get the last laugh in the series finale, though, winning 16-8. Add in their 17-7 win the day before the Brewers came to town, it was the third time in four games the Nationals scored 14 or more runs (they would follow it up by beating the Pirates 13-0 the next day).
The overall season series: Brewers 4, Nationals 2.
The old trope is that October is decided by pitching, and it’s ultimately pitching that brought both teams to tonight — just in different styles. The Nationals will likely lean on their Hall of Fame-bound starting pitcher (and fall back on their other two All-Star starters) to take them as far as possible. The Brewers likely won’t see a pitcher throw more than 3 innings, with pinch-hitters being used every time the 9th spot in the order comes up.
Winner-take-all games can lead to crazy moments and unlikely heroes. Who’s it going to be tonight?
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference