Even after Bryce Harper’s departure, Washington was left with a fearsome rotation and potent sluggers. After their wild card win on Tuesday, will the Nationals finally advance to a championship series?
October 1, 2019 | Tyler Kepner, The New York Times | Photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — When Christian Yelich broke his kneecap on a foul ball last month, the Milwaukee Brewers turned to a rookie to replace him. Trent Grisham had gotten five hits the night before, and he impressed his manager, Craig Counsell, with his poise. He is not a superstar like Yelich, but Grisham could hold his own.
“He’s 22 and he’s got the low heart rate,” Counsell said last week, on the bench before a game in Cincinnati. “As the game goes on, he plays very smooth. You’d never know it’s a big game. Sometimes you want him to hurry up. Very relaxed out there; the situation’s not going to get too big for him.”
On Tuesday night, in the National League wild card game at Nationals Park, Grisham came undone in right field at the worst possible time. With two outs, the bases loaded and the Brewers leading by two runs, Grisham let a single by Juan Soto skip past him. The Nationals — haunted by repeated autumn failures — finally caught a break in the month that has bedeviled them.
The game would almost certainly have been tied even if Grisham had fielded the ball cleanly, and Josh Hader, the Brewers’ overpowering closer, had certainly created the mess with a hit batter, a single and a walk. But the go-ahead run scampered home on Grisham’s error, and the Nationals soon finished off a raucous 4-3 victory to set up a division series date with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
To get there, the Nationals needed eight innings on Tuesday from their aces, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Scherzer walked Grisham to lead off the game, and then allowed a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal. In the second inning, Eric Thames homered off Scherzer.
But the Brewers never scored again, with Strasburg relieving Scherzer to start the top of the sixth. He worked three dominant innings, and Daniel Hudson saved it in the ninth.
This is the first time the Nationals have advanced in the playoffs — though, technically, they still have not won a postseason series — since Major League Baseball finally returned to Washington for the 2005 season.
When Victor Robles caught the final out in center field, and fireworks exploded over South Capitol Street, M.L.B.’s vision for the city was illuminated: a perennial winner with a roster of stars in a ballpark that set off a neighborhood building boom.
“That was absolutely the dream,” said Jim Bowden, the Nationals’ first general manager after their move from Montreal. “When I came over, the team was owned by 30 clubs and run by the commissioner’s office. They wanted to find an owner that had the resources, lived in the D.C. area and had the pockets to build world championship-caliber teams.”
Under the principal owner Ted Lerner, the Nationals have spent lavishly, won consistently and watched new construction rise steadily around Nationals Park. But nervous tension in early autumn is also part of the team’s identity.
The playoffs have come to Washington five times in eight seasons, including Tuesday’s wild card showdown.
“The blueprint’s been pretty impressive,” Bowden said. “The only thing they’re lacking is winning a series and winning a world championship, which they’re still trying to do for Ted.”
This year’s effort seemed doomed through the first 50 games of the season. The Nationals were 19-31 through May 23, yet rallied to become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to finish with at least 93 victories after falling 12 games under .500. Those Braves beat the Philadelphia A’s in one of the greatest upsets in World Series history.
These Nationals are a hard sell as an underdog. Their payroll of roughly $195 million ranks among the highest in the majors, and their three top starters — Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — are signed for a combined $525 million.
The trio was worth the money this season, posting a 43-20 record and a 3.18 earned run average among the three of them. The Nationals outbid the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies last winter for Corbin, signing him for six years and $140 million. The Phillies wound up spending $330 million for 13 years to sign Bryce Harper, the former N.L. most valuable player who spent his first seven seasons with the Nationals. Harper had a strong year, but weak pitching doomed the Phillies to a .500 record.
Even after Harper’s departure, the Nationals were left with franchise cornerstones to spare. Third baseman Anthony Rendon hit .319 with 34 homers and a major league-high 126 runs batted in, and Soto, the left fielder, nearly matched him, at .282-34-110.
Soto does not turn 21 until Oct. 25 — the day of Game 3 of the World Series — but he put together a season with few precedents. Soto’s .949 on-base-plus slugging percentage made him just the 10th player in major league history with at least a .900 O.P.S. at age 20, joining some of the game’s most prolific hitters: Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Cap Anson, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx, Mike Trout, Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle.
“I feel really happy and really proud of myself, but it’s not over yet,” Soto said.
Neither, the Nationals hope, is their relationship with Rendon, who is 29 and eligible for free agency after the World Series. The Washington Post reported Monday that in September the team had offered Rendon a seven-year contract worth $210 to $215 million, but Rendon seems almost certain to test the market.
“If you’re giving me the opportunity and saying I’m this close from going to go car shopping from multiple lots, instead of staying in one lot, I mean, what would you do?” Rendon said in July, in a radio interview with 106.7 The Fan.
The Nationals tried a similar strategy with Harper at the end of last season, offering him a 10-year, $300 million contract with deferrals that would have paid him until he turned 60. When Harper turned it down, as expected, the Nationals immediately moved on.
The Rendon proposal, at least, is meant to be an opening offer, not a final one, with deferrals to be paid out much sooner. And the Lerner family and General Manager Mike Rizzo have made several deals with Scott Boras, who represents Harper but also Scherzer, Strasburg and Jayson Werth, the former outfielder.
Back in 2010, the Nationals startled the industry with a seven-year, $126 million deal for Werth, who had been a complementary player for Phillies teams that ruled the N.L. East. But he led the Nationals to first place in his second season, helped the team win three more division crowns, and now has his name in the franchise ring of honor along the upper deck facade.
Four other signs, above the right field bullpen, commemorate the division championships. All of those seasons ended in early October heartbreak. The Nationals were back for more on Tuesday, trying again to complete the vision that brought them here. For a change, it was a thrilling first act.