After 162 games, playoff baseball is finally upon us. October is indeed in full swing, and the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers will kick things off in the National League Wild Card game on Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
Let’s break it down:
How did they get here?
The Nationals and Brewers are two teams that–at one point in the season–were thought to be down and out.
Despite losing Bryce Harper to free agency, the Nationals made a host of good signings to upgrade positions of need while also landing marquee free agent pitcher Patrick Corbin. With Anthony Rendon now leading the way and a dominant front three in the rotation, the Nats were still a favorite to win the NL East.
However, things did not go as planned at the start of the season. By the end of May, the Nationals were 24-33 and manager Dave Martinez was already on the hot seat.
Washington had been largely undone by a woeful bullpen and a number of injuries to key players like Rendon and Trea Turner. But they would rebound in sensational fashion, going 69-34 the rest of the way to clinch a playoff spot.
The Brewers also faced issues in their pitching staff, and Christian Yelich’s MVP season was going to waste in the middle of a lineup that saw disappointing seasons from Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, and Jesus Aguilar, who was later traded to Tampa Bay.
When Yelich broke his kneecap on Sept. 10, most figured the injury would sink Milwaukee’s playoff chances. Yet, the Brewers responded with a 14-5 run, finishing September with a 20-7 record and barreling into the playoffs.
Tuesday night should offer a matchup of two incredibly resilient teams that find very different ways to win ball games.
Milwaukee: Brandon Woodruff
Both teams will send hard-throwing right-handers to the mound for this one-game playoff.
Woodruff was unquestionably the ace of Milwaukee’s staff in the first half of the season, posting a 3.67 ERA with a .651 OPS against and earning an All-Star nod. But Woodruff missed nearly two months with a strained oblique, putting a serious damper on the state of the rotation.
The 26-year-old has since returned in spectacular fashion. Though he has only made two appearances and has not been stretched out by manager Craig Counsell, Woodruff has thrown four scoreless innings and struck out seven batters since coming off the Injured List.
Milwaukee will likely give Woodruff a longer leash tonight, but do not expect him to go more than three or four innings. If the 2018 playoffs taught us anything, Counsell knows how and when to deploy his bullpen, and he will likely play the long game against the Nationals.
Washington: Max Scherzer
It should come as no surprise that Washington will send Scherzer to the mound.
Although injuries and a poor September might cost Scherzer the NL Cy Young Award, he has the chance to give the Nationals a chance to square off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Given his gamer mentality, expect Scherzer to relish this moment.
In spite of Scherzer’s struggles since his return from injury at the end of August, he is still one of the best pitchers in the game. He led all starters with a 2.45 FIP and a 7.36 strikeout-to-walk rate while also leading the NL with a 12.7 K/9.
However, Scherzer has not gone more than six innings since July 6, The Nationals need him to go deep into the game, but they also do not want to keep him on the bump until he is completely out of gas. That scenario doomed Washington when they utilized Scherzer in relief during Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs.
Expect “Mad Max” to go right after a Brewers lineup that is still devoid of its best player and has a couple of guys (Ryan Braun and Cain) who are playing hurt.
The Nationals lineup can beat you in a number of ways. Washington ranked first in the NL in OBP and second in OPS and runs scored. They also ranked first in stolen bases. Turner and Victor Robles are menaces on the base paths, and they are a nightmare for starting pitchers who also have to deal with Rendon and Juan Soto in the middle of the order.
Milwaukee may not have Yelich, but rookie Keston Hiura has been one of the very best in the NL and had a massive second half. Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal will provide power from the left side of the dish, and both Braun and Cain have been red-hot over the last two weeks despite their injuries.
There is no question the Nationals have the more explosive offensive potential, but do not sleep on Milwaukee’s boppers. Over the course of the last three weeks, they beat three legitimate aces in Jack Flaherty, Sonny Gray, and Luis Castillo, and those are all guys that have been excellent (and healthy) in the second half, unlike Scherzer.
Whereas the Nationals have the better chance of putting the game to bed in the early innings, the Brewers are the vastly superior club in tight ball games. Milwaukee had a 27-18 record in one-run games, while the Nationals were just 17-21 on the year.
Brewers closer Josh Hader rebounded from a surprisingly poor August and has once again reestablished himself as one of the most dominant relievers in the game. Counsell has supplemented his ultimate weapon with a journeyman group comprised of Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, and Drew Pomeranz, who might be one of the most outstanding trade deadline acquisitions.
Meanwhile, Washington’s relief corps are still gasping for air. Daniel Hudson has been excellent since coming over from the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline, but closer Sean Doolittle had an incredibly shaky second half in which he dealt with injury and have up six homers. Doolittle was effective in September, but his high usage makes for a potentially volatile situation.
This is a fascinating matchup. On paper, the Nationals are the far more imposing team. But the Brewers have made a habit of defying expectations over the course of the last two seasons, and they may be better equipped to handle a low-scoring contest.
Still, it is hard to bet against Scherzer, who should be as motivated as ever to turn in his best performance of the season. Milwaukee is also putting a lot of pressure on Woodruff to deliver the goods with their season on the line. Washington’s ability to create havoc on the bases and disrupt the flow of the game cannot be understated in that regard.
The Brewers may have their moments, but the Nationals will prove that they are the better club.