The Washington Nationals may have exorcised their ghosts of Octobers past — and anyone following this franchise knows they have enough to fill an entire lineup — with a stunning eighth-inning rally in which everything went right for a change.
Trailing by two runs and facing one of baseball’s best relievers in Milwaukee left-hander Josh Hader, the Nationals used a disputed hit by pitch, a broken-bat single, a walk, a two-run hit by a young outfielder and an error to fashion a three-run uprising, as bedlam broke out in Nationals Park.
With a sellout crowd of 42,993 on its feet and a deafening roar accompanying every pitch, reliever Daniel Hudson, a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor who was cut by the Angels in spring training, pitched the ninth inning to seal a 4-3 victory in Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game.
The Nationals advanced to a best-of-five Division Series against the Dodgers, with left-hander Patrick Corbin slated to start Game 1 in Chavez Ravine on Thursday night.
“I never doubted this team,” general manager Mike Rizzo said amid a wild champagne-and-beer-soaked dance party in the clubhouse. “We were 19-31 [on May 23] and to the outside world, the world was coming to an end for the Nationals.
“We kind of got in our little cocoon in Washington and grinded it out. I feel good about this team. I think it’s a character team. The best is yet to come, I think.”
The worst, the Nationals hope, is behind them.
Elimination games have not been kind to this club, the combination of win-or-go-home stress, shaky relief pitching, poor execution and bad luck leading to some of the worst October meltdowns in recent history.
In Game 5 of a 2012 Division Series, Washington had a 6-0 third-inning lead over St. Louis. The Cardinals chipped away and scored four runs against Drew Storen in the ninth for a 9-7 win.
The Nationals led the Dodgers 1-0 through six innings of Game 5 of a 2016 Division Series. Joc Pederson opened the seventh with a home run against Max Scherzer and the Dodgers added three runs against five relievers in the inning for a 4-3 win.
Washington’s 9-8 loss to Chicago in Game 5 of a 2017 Division Series almost defies explanation. The Cubs scored four two-out runs against Scherzer during a fifth inning in which four consecutive batters reached without a hit — an intentional walk, a third-strike passed ball, a catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch.
There was more teeth-gnashing among Nats fans Tuesday, as Scherzer gave up a two-run home run to Yasmani Grandal in the first inning, a home run to Eric Thames in the second, and Washington mustered one run and three hits in seven innings against Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz.
That frustration morphed into elation after Stephen Strasburg, making his first relief appearance, pitched the sixth, seventh and eighth innings and prevented a 3-1 deficit from growing.
Hader, who led all relievers with 138 strikeouts in 752/3 innings, struck out Victor Robles with a 98-mph fastball to open the eighth.
A full-count fastball appeared to hit the knob of pinch-hitter Michael Taylor’s bat before caroming off his left shoulder. Plate umpire Mike Everitt ruled hit by pitch. A replay official in New York “did not see clear and convincing evidence to overturn the call.”
Trea Turner, who homered in the third, struck out for the second out. Hader shattered pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman’s bat with a 97-mph fastball, but the 35-year-old got enough of it to flare a single to center, advancing Taylor to third.
“I told him the barrel’s overrated sometimes,” Rizzo said. “He was due. We were due to get one of those.”
Anthony Rendon walked to load the bases. Juan Soto, the 20-year-old left fielder who hit 34 home runs, lined a single to right to drive in two runs.
Right fielder Trent Grisham charged hard in hopes of throwing out pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson from second, but the ball kicked off his glove for an error, allowing Rendon to score from first for a 4-3 lead.
“Tonight we caught a couple of breaks, we got a little bit lucky, and you’ll take that in the playoffs sometimes,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t been able to get over the hump. Maybe this is it, maybe it isn’t, who knows? All I can say is this is a fun team to watch.”