WASHINGTON -- For 7 1/3 innings the National League Wild Card Game played out as if Brewers manager Craig Counsell had jotted it on a slip of paper, slipped it in his back pocket and then watched it come to life.
Then baseball happened. A disputed hit-by-pitch. A broken-bat single. An error charged to a rookie trying to make a play in his first postseason game. Everything you have heard of the perils of a single-elimination game came to pass for the Brewers in the eighth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Nationals on Tuesday night.
Just like that, the Brewers’ October was over after one day.
“The type of September we had, the type of season we had, we figured ways to get it going,” said Josh Hader, who blamed his own command woes more than anything else in that fateful eighth. “It’s a tough loss. You want to be in October baseball and play in the playoffs. We’re just going to have to bring it next year.”
While the Brewers pondered next year, the Nats are off to play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series thanks to Juan Soto’s go-ahead hit in an eighth inning gone awry.
“However we lose, it’s a really difficult thing to work this hard, accomplish this much and go home,” Brewers veteran Ryan Braun said. “But at the same time, that’s the position we wanted to put ourselves in. We were ahead with our bullpen guys in the game. It just didn't work out tonight.”
For most of the night, the first of October looked exactly like most of September for the Brewers, who had a lead before Nationals ace Max Scherzer recorded the game’s first out thanks to rookie Trent Grisham’s leadoff walk followed by Yasmani Grandal’s home run. Eric Thames extended the advantage to 3-0 in the top of the second for starter Brandon Woodruff, who came out firing 100 mph fastballs and made it through four innings on 52 pitches with a 3-1 lead.
That set up exactly the bullpen progression expected by everyone who watched the Brewers charge past the Cubs with 20 victories in their first 24 games of September to claim the league’s final postseason berth: one inning from quick-working, soft-tossing left-hander Brent Suter, two innings from hard-throwing lefty Drew Pomeranz and then, hopefully, two more from Hader.
It was shaping into a nine-inning primer of how Milwaukee kept surging after Christian Yelich went down with a fractured kneecap in the second week of September.
“It started with Woody, and Woody did an incredible job getting us four innings,” Counsell said. “It was special. It really was. He was outstanding. Suter got through the [fifth] inning. It was a struggle. We probably planned on more innings from him, but I just thought that with who was coming up that [the sixth inning] was a great inning for Drew to start it. He threw the ball well, and we're six outs away.
“If you could have told me we'd hand the ball with six outs to go to Josh, that would have fit our script really, really well. It just didn't play.”
Hader knew early in the eighth inning that his command was not where he wanted it. Still, he got the first out of the eighth inning and had Michael A. Taylor in a full count when he fired a fastball that hit Taylor’s left hand. The Brewers contended it hit the knob of Taylor’s bat first.
They challenged. There was insufficient evidence, said MLB in a statement, to overturn the on-field call of a hit-by-pitch. So when Hader bounced back to strike out the dangerous Trea Turner, who’d homered off Woodruff in the third inning, the eighth continued on.
Veteran Ryan Zimmerman extended the rally with a broken-bat pinch-hit single to center field. A walk to Anthony Rendon brought up Soto, who lined a two-RBI single to right field that got by Grisham for an error that allowed the winning run to score.
“The inning was an ugly inning,” Counsell said. “Crazy things happen, and do happen.”
“It’s baseball,” Hader said. “It’s not anything on [Grisham]. It comes down to me making my pitches. If I didn’t walk those guys, the opportunity wouldn’t have even came. No blame on him at all.”
Hader was an All-Star for a second straight season, and the only member of last year’s “Electric Dudes” bullpen trio to make it to the end of 2019. Corey Knebel lost the season to Tommy John surgery. Jeremy Jeffress struggled and was released. Hader logged 37 saves and led MLB relievers in strikeouts. The Brewers found other arms, including Pomeranz and Suter, to fill in around him, which was a big reason they had baseball’s best ERA in September.
On Tuesday, Hader didn’t have it.
That’s where the plan fell apart.
“A lot of misfires arm-side,” Grandal said. “I was just trying to keep him in the strike zone as much as I could. Slider wasn’t playing too good, which is fine. We can just use it to slow the guys down and keep on throwing that fastball, but command-wise, it didn’t seem like it was quite there. That said, we’re going to live and die with his best stuff. Obviously today, it didn’t work out.”
Said Woodruff: “It’s pretty gut-wrenching to work so hard throughout the month of September and win those games to get to this point and have it end like that. It stings.”
Woodruff was among the players with supportive words for Grisham, the 22-year-old who had been with Milwaukee since the start of August but did enough in the first four months in the Minors that he was MLB Pipeline’s Brewers Prospect of the Year. In a quiet clubhouse, teammates took turns consoling him.
“I’m going to take solace in what these guys say to me,” Grisham said. “I put a lot of faith in them and trust what they say."
Grisham figures to be a part of Milwaukee's plans next season, when Ryan Braun enters the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Yelich will be back and healthy again, too.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Yelich said. “We could’ve easily quit a lot of times. I think people really got to see the character of our team, the heart and fight of our guys. We’ll be better off for it.”
“Nobody thought we were even going to come close to making it here,” said Grandal, a free agent again this winter. “The fact we were able to come out of the bottom and make it into the postseason was huge. These guys did a great job coming together and putting together a run in September, which is exactly what we needed.”
In a little more than four months, the Brewers will start over again in Spring Training.
“It’s tough to think about all winter,” said Lorenzo Cain. “Everything starts over. We’re going to have another opportunity. The last two years we fell just short.”