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So WILD! Nats stun Crew, head to NLDS

@JamalCollier
October 3, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals appeared headed for heartbreak once again on Tuesday night, until the franchise's postseason trauma was flipped by Juan Soto. Instead of more disappointment, the 20-year-old slugger created a new lasting memory. In his postseason debut, Soto stroked the go-ahead single into right field in the eighth

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals appeared headed for heartbreak once again on Tuesday night, until the franchise's postseason trauma was flipped by Juan Soto. Instead of more disappointment, the 20-year-old slugger created a new lasting memory.

In his postseason debut, Soto stroked the go-ahead single into right field in the eighth inning, a ball that rolled under the glove of Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham and allowed three runs to score -- leading the Nationals to a 4-3 victory in the National League Wild Card Game, stunning Milwaukee and All-Star closer Josh Hader.

NLDS presented by Utz, Game 1: Tonight, 8:30 p.m. ET on TBS

Date Result Highlights
Oct. 1 WSH 4, MIL 3 Watch

Elimination games have not produced many fond memories for the Nationals, especially at Nationals Park, their home ballpark transformed into a house of horrors each October. Their fans had watched the Nats lose three straight elimination games here, winner-take-all Game 5s in 2012, ‘16 and ‘17, all ending in disappointment, with early leads blown late and aspirations that evaporated quickly. On Tuesday night, the script finally changed and the Nationals had reason to celebrate.

Box score

“Just getting the monkey off our backs,” starter Max Scherzer said. “If you’re not going to get a win, you don’t get to celebrate ... it’s such a special feeling with all of these guys. I love these guys. There’s just so much fight in everybody.”

It led to a jubilant postgame clubhouse -- the second champagne celebration here in a week, which for most of the night appeared would never come. Not after Scherzer struggled in his start, raising questions about whether Stephen Strasburg, who shoved in relief, should have actually started. And not when their offense was lifeless for seven innings.

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So they celebrated. Fans in the stands threw beer in the air, hugged, yelled and screamed. Soto ripped off his helmet and screamed toward the home dugout, where a few players had emptied out onto the field in excitement. The team gathered on the field for a group photo near the mound.

In the clubhouse, Sean Doolittle celebrated amid the champagne with a blue lightsaber. Trea Turner wore an old-school N.C. State football helmet around the clubhouse and kept it on at the podium for his postgame interview session. They danced and threw beer and champagne once again, but they earned it, advancing to the NL Division Series against the Dodgers on Thursday in Los Angeles.

“It means a lot to the fan base, they’ve supported us ever since we got here,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We were one of those teams that fell short. We played a bunch of Game 5s and elimination games, and to finally break through, with this group of guys, is special.”

And it all seemed so unlikely, especially at the start of the eighth inning, when the Brewers were ahead 3-1 and turned the game over to Hader. What followed is usually the sort of strange occurrences the Nats are left having to explain.

Michael A. Taylor reached base on a controversial hit-by-pitch that also hit the knob of his bat. Ryan Zimmerman fought off a bloop single at 69.2 mph off the bat that fell in for a hit. Anthony Rendon worked a walk to load the bases and then Soto cleared them, with one swing and a misplay in right field -- a break that finally went Washington’s way.

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“You have to catch some breaks, but more importantly, you have to take advantage of them,” Zimmerman said. “In the past, it seems like it's gone the other way, but tonight we caught a couple breaks. Maybe it's finally our turn.”

Maybe it will be. These Nationals certainly believe they are different. They arrived to the postseason differently than the previous four playoff teams in team history, without the luxury of cruising to a division title and wrapping up a playoff spot in early September. Instead, they had to play with urgency for months to dig themselves out of a nearly crippling 19-31 start.

Now the Nationals are riding a season-high nine-game winning streak, one they will carry into Los Angeles on Thursday night with hopes of eradicating even more postseason demons.

“It's kind of been like that all year,” Zimmerman said. “Once we had the slow start, from there it was basically you’re either in or you’re out. All hands are on deck. It’s going to take something special. We got a little bit lucky tonight, but that's what you need in the playoffs.”

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.