What to know ahead of the Brewers' Wild Card showdown with the Nationals
For just the second time in franchise history, the Milwaukee Brewers are headed to the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Only this time, after waltzing into the National League Division Series with home field advantage last season, the 2019 Brewers have been forced into the meat grinder that is a road NL Wild Card game.
Here is everything you need to know ahead of the winner-take-all matchup against the Washington Nationals:
Matchup: Milwaukee Brewers (89-73) at Washington Nationals (93-69)
Where: Nationals Park
When: Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 7:08 p.m.
Starters: Brandon Woodruff (11-3, 3.62 ERA) vs. Max Scherzer (11-7, 2.92 ERA)
Season Series: Brewers, 4-2
Winner Plays: Los Angeles Dodgers (series starts on Thursday, Oct. 3, first Brewers/Dodgers home game would be Sunday, Oct. 6)
The Wild Card game features two of baseball's hottest teams; Milwaukee finished 20-7 in yet another torrid September, while Washington rattled off eight straight season-ending wins to complete its own turnaround from a 19-31 start to the year.
Pitching has been the key to Milwaukee's resurgence – the Brewers led the majors in ERA in September – which was partially aided by Woodruff's return to the rotation. He has only completed two scoreless innings in each of his two September starts as he works into game shape following a July oblique injury, but he looked crisp, allowing zero hits and seven strikeouts to just one walk.
Woodruff is unlikely to last more than three or four innings against the Nationals on Tuesday (he has not thrown more than 40 pitches in a start in 10 weeks), but this is a spot in which both he and the Brewers are more than comfortable. This season, Gio Gonzalez – a typical starter – has piggybacked off Woodruff's starts twice, tossing 6.1 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts. Last year, Woodruff, then a reliever, even kicked off the Brewers' postseason with three scoreless innings as an opener in Game 1 of the NLDS against Colorado. Not only is Woodruff the staff ace, he has proven himself capable in both the postseason and as an opener. Can Gio, or some other starter, carry Woodruff's start into the sixth inning, where Counsell can then mix-and-match with Drew Pomeranz, Josh Hader, et. al.?
Woodruff's two post-injury starts have come against the lowly Padres and Pirates, but he did shut down the Nationals back in May (six innings, one run, four hits, and nine strikeouts). Of course, the existing Nationals are very different than the one Milwaukee saw nearly five months ago. Backup catcher Yan Gomes hit cleanup that afternoon. Two of the team's three best hitters, Juan Soto and Trea Turner, were out of the lineup, and the team's top batsmen, MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, had only just returned the night before from a two-week IL stint. All three players are now healthy and rolling, and are fortified by an effective group of role players. Washington led the NL in OPS after the All-Star break.
The Nationals' offense has found its groove of late, but its starting pitching is the true backbone of the roster. Three-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer has been tabbed for Tuesday night's Wild Card game, and while his resume stacks up against anyone in the game, he has been vulnerable since returning from his back injury. In seven starts since missing a month, he has only pitched to a 4.74 ERA and is yet to complete seven innings, typically a hallmark of a Scherzer start. His stuff has still been fairly nasty (54 strikeouts to just eight walks), but the home run bug has bitten him on more than one occasion.
One other factor to consider: the Nationals' grim postseason history, with nearly all of the team's heartbreaking moments coming at home. 2012's Game 5 NLDS meltdown against St. Louis. 2014's Game 2 NLDS loss to San Francisco in 18 innings. 2016's Game 5 NLDS dagger at the hands of Los Angeles. And the 2017 Game 5 NLDS gagfest against Chicago.
That's it. Those are all four playoff appearances in Nationals history, and all four come with serious Nationals Park nightmares. If/when the game turns against the Nats on Tuesday, the crowd will not be one trying to urge the home team back into the game; rather, it will be a morgue waiting to add another line to the Nats' postseason misery. And I only say that as someone who grew up 30 miles from Nats Park, watched the 2012 postseason disaster from the stands and has agonized over each additional October choke from his couch in Milwaukee since.
If Scherzer does get nicked with a couple early bombs, which is certainly possible with Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain close to rejoining the forces, manager Davey Martinez may turn to one of his other frontline starters to clean up the mess. Should Martinez use his non-Doolittle/Hudson relievers, though, the Brewers will have an opportunity to put the nail in the coffin. Milwaukee has been extremely adept at shutting the door once they grab the lead down the stretch, this closing Rockies series notwithstanding.
The Nationals have the roster advantage and the benefit of home field, but the Brewers feature the vastly superior in-game tactician in Counsell. And while the Nats will be battling not only the Brewers but the demons from playoffs past, Milwaukee will be playing with house money. Here's betting both fanbases will be forced to suffer through a seat-clenching, heart-palpitating ninth inning on Tuesday, but which way it goes is any one's guess.
That's just the beauty of October baseball.
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