WASHINGTON -- For months, each game carried such heightened importance, whether real or perceived, for the Nationals, a team trying to claw its way back into contention after a sluggish start to the regular season. That made Sunday’s environment almost refreshingly laid back for a team that went all out to get to this point, a chance to sit back and wait for clarity about its opponent for Tuesday’s winner-take-all National League Wild Card Game.
After wrapping up home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game on Friday, just minutes before the final out of Sunday’s 8-2 win, they learned their opponent, as the Cardinals dominated the Cubs to lock up the NL Central, setting up a date between the Nats and Brewers on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.
Now the Nationals can go to sleep on Sunday night knowing exactly who they need to prepare for.
“I hardly ever sleep,” manager Dave Martinez said with a laugh prior to the game. “But what I really like about today is, I get to go home, have dinner, spend some time with my boys, who are here, and enjoy the night and not worry about hopping on a plane.”
Heading into the postseason, the Nats delivered lots of promising signs.
Juan Soto showed signs of breaking out of his slump -- he entered the game with four hits in his last 42 at-bats -- with an RBI double. Anthony Rendon was given a rare day off to finish off his career-best (and MVP-worthy) season. Kurt Suzuki inspired confidence in his right elbow by hammering a solo homer in the third inning. Gerardo Parra made another pinch-hit appearance and delivered another clutch hit, a two-run double to improve to 8-for-12 in his last 12 games, with two homers and 11 RBIs.
Washington finishes the year with 93 wins, rebounding from its sluggish 19-31 start to secure the most wins for a team that spent any portion of the season 12 games under .500 since the Boston Braves won 94 games in 1914 after falling to 28-40.
“No matter how you start, the objective is to get to the postseason,” Martinez said. “The boys did that. We can all sit here and say it was ugly in the beginning, but they stepped up and endured a lot, and we're going to the postseason.”
And they’re going there riding their hottest streak of the season. Thanks to a perfectly timed, season-high eight-winning streak, Sunday’s victory over the Indians did not have any effect on the standings, but they still finished with back-to-back emphatic sweeps, ending the playoff hopes of both the Phillies and Indians. Sunday’s win was the Nationals’ 10th in 11 games.
“Amazing,” Soto said. “I can tell you, we’re ready for the playoffs.”
And now the team and the city wait for Tuesday, when the Nats host perhaps the only other team that ended the year hotter. After losing its own NL MVP Award candidate in Christian Yelich, Milwaukee closed out the season 13-5 to seal a Wild Card spot.
The Nationals faced the Brewers at two very different points of their season -- in May when they were scuffling, and in August when they were surging, but overall, they dropped four of six games to Milwaukee this season.
“I've said it all along: It takes 25 guys on the active roster, and they proved that,” Martinez said. “One of [the Brewers'] best players went down, and all the guys stepped up and filled the void. They've been playing really well.”