Tuesday night’s National League Wild Card Game was a good reminder of just how much chance decides playoff games, and how much a single bounce can be amplified under the microscope of a single-game elimination. For once, that bounce just happened to go the Washington Nationals’ way.
By merit of beating the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nats advance to the National League Division Series energized, but very much the underdog in the series, despite their selection by many as a trendy upset pick.
The series begins Thursday night in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ staff very much on turn and fresh and the Nats forced to reset after using both Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for extended work Tuesday night. Before we get to that matchup, though, let’s take a moment to look back at the moment that turned Washington’s postseason fortunes.
The last time the Nats had seen Brewers’ closer Josh Hader, he’d also struggled. Back on Aug. 17, Washington batted following a disastrous top of the ninth that saw their bullpen blow a three-run lead, trailing 12-11. Hader allowed the first four Nationals to reach, on a walk, a double, an RBI single and an intentional pass. He then struck out Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, and Anthony Rendon in succession to send the game to extra innings, where the Brewers would eventually win, 15-13 in 14 innings.
The Wild Card Game could have been one of those games, if Trent Grisham had fielded Juan Soto’s single to right without error, allowing just the two tying runs to score. One doesn’t have to stretch too hard to imagine that game going extra innings, both managers forced to look further and further down their benches and bullpens to keep their seasons alive. The Nats, and Davey Martinez, avoided such a fate Tuesday night. They likely won’t in the next three-to-five games.
While Milwaukee fought admirably to get to the playoffs and led for most of the Wild Card Game, they were a broken team. Their best player — arguably the best in the league — was hurt. Two of their other best were hobbled. Their dominant starter was only strong enough, coming back from injury, to pitch four innings. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are a rested, ready juggernaut.
Los Angeles led the National League in runs scored, home runs, and OPS this year. The Nats were second in two of those categories, but LA won 106 games for a reason. The Dodgers have won 302 games over the past three seasons combined, the best stretch in franchise history. Oh, right, they’ve also won the NL pennant each of the last two years.
The Dodgers also posted the NL’s best ERA by nearly half a run, and nearly a run lower than the Nats. They allowed the fewest home runs (185) and the fewest walks (392), the latter by a good margin. Their staff ERA (3.37), WHIP (1.10) and K/BB rate (3.88) were essentially equivalent to what White Sox ace Lucas Giolito did this year (3.41/1.06/4.00).
Now, the good news. The Nats rotation was more valuable this season (21.4 WAR), leading the National League (LA’s was second). The Dodgers also suffered some of their own bullpen woes, blowing as many saves (29) as the Nats relief corps did.
LA’s bullpen is full of solid-if-unspectacular arms. They rank just 12th in MLB in K rate (9.47/9 IP) and don’t boast a regular reliever with an ERA under 3.00, unless you count swingman/spot starter Julio Urias. While you probably remember the likes of Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly, specialists like University of Maryland product Adam Kolarek (1 ER in 11.2 IP since a trade from Tampa Bay) could be leaned on for big outs.
The Dodger bullpen has also allowed 33 of 37 attempted base stealers to advance successfully, which may give the Nats a chance to run on them.
Ultimately, Kenley Jansen’s effectiveness could make or break the series. His 3.71 ERA was easily the worst of his career and both his walk rate and WHIP are the worst they’ve been in five seasons. Both teams will be holding their breath in the late innings of close contests.
LA’s biggest health question mark may be Rich Hill, who threw three innings of one-hit ball in Sunday’s regular season finale. It was just his third Major League outing since June, as he’s battled injuries again this year. But when healthy, Hill has logged a 2.45 ERA in 58.2 innings of work, striking out 72 batters. He also allowed 10 home runs, the highest rate of his career. He may well be called upon to start a crucial Game 4 in D.C. Monday.
Perhaps thankfully, the Nats won’t have a home Game 5 this year. They cannot play a winner-take-all game in their ballpark the rest of this season, in fact, as MLB rules dictate, they’d be the road team in an NLCS with the Cardinals, despite their superior record, as well as for the World Series. For better or worse, they won’t face the same situation they did Tuesday night the rest of the way.