The satellite signal went out at the house with one away in the bottom of the eighth. If that wasn’t a cosmic sign of how awry things were about to go, I don’t know what is.
Much as Max Scherzer struggled with his command throughout his night, Josh Hader, too, was clearly laboring; perhaps amped up for the occasion, perhaps a season’s worth of work catching up to him in the unusually warm fall night in the District. Hailing from nearby Maryland, that shouldn’t have fazed him. Or perhaps it was the baseball gods, doing what they do best in postseason ball: throwing a wrench in best-laid plans.
And those plans could not have been more perfectly laid for Craig Counsell and the Milwaukee Brewers. Jumping on Scherzer early, a Trent Grisham walk and a first-pitch laser into the home bullpen courtesy Yasmani Grandal, this was like something out of a dream: a 2-0 lead on a Hall of Fame starter with ace Brandon Woodruff doing his thing?
Yet Brewers fans had seen this story before. I won’t say I was waiting for the wheels to fall off, but I won’t say I wasn’t, either. Brent Suter, too, looked shaky; it was his first postseason appearance and the Nationals kept him off-rhythm by calling for time with a regularity that would make Willson Contreras seem like the poster child for pace of play. But he kept the Nationals off the board in his one-inning of work. Eric Thames added a solo shot off Scherzer to make it 3-0. Trea Turner countered with a solo shot of his own but, setting that aside, the Nationals struggled to even put good swings on Brewer pitching.
The temperature cooled outside, summer’s last gasp giving way with torrential fury to this morning’s autumnal cool, and a pensive, hopeful excitement swelled as the innings ticked by. This was happening. Suter was replaced by Drew Pomeranz, who earned himself a sizable payday in the Hot Stove. Like the Miracle on Ice team in 1980, they got the lead. All they needed to do was hold on to it.
Theologian and minister Greg Boyd speaks at length in his open theist treatise God at War of the ancient metaphor of water as evil: Jesus casting demons into swine, who then rush into the sea below; Christ walking on the water; the earth a formless void, ruach hovering over the face of the waters, creating order from the chaos/evil.
No, the rains over me were not figurative of evil, but they were figurative for the things about to happen. Hader, like Suter, didn’t have his best stuff. His fastball was off-target, he struggled to control his slider. Victor Robles went down swinging on a 98 MPH fastball. Then the signal went out.
I got a text from my brother, with whom I had been exchanging messages both frivolous and insightful throughout the night. “Good thing you’re missing this.” I fired up the At Bat app and listened to Bob Uecker and Jeff Levering discussing the events that happened while I was out with a downpour. My brother briefed me on the HBP, the review, the fact that it was seemingly clear as day that the ball struck the end of the bat before glancing off Michael A. Taylor.
Then I remembered who was in the replay booth for MLB.
— Brent Sirviö – Bunting SZN (@BSirvioBtB) October 1, 2019
Uecker and Levering both noted how Taylor would have been in significant pain if his hand had been struck first by the ball. The absence of obvious signs of pain would point to the fact that the ball made contact with the bat first. The fact that it glanced off Taylor and entered the field of play, for Grandal to tag Taylor out, all of this was familiar to the Brewers: something similar happened to them a week and a half ago with Keston Hiura. MLB Replay did what MLB Replay does — hides behind their monitors and unaccountable, unimpeachable status — and awarded Taylor first base.
Turner then struck out, and most would think order would be restored. Yet, Hader with two outs this season had opponents slashing .182/.214/.424 along with 18 hits, ten of which went for extra bases, six of those going for all of them. The aging Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate and shattered his bat on the fourth pitch he saw, a pop into shallow center field. A healthy Lorenzo Cain chases that catch; while it also appeared Orlando Arcia took a strange route to the ball. It wasn’t quite a Kirk Gibson moment, but even faint echos can be understood. Zimmerman gave way to pinch runner Andrew Stevenson, Anthony Rendon walked and Juan Soto came to the plate.
The rain let up enough for me to see the Zimmerman at-bat, then the signal went out again.
When it came back, my phone was blowing up from friends and family alike, and the Nationals had the lead. I didn’t see the single, the error. Grisham made a great throw to catch Juan Soto in a rundown, but that wasn’t even lipstick on a pig. My wife got up and went to bed, offering me a cursory ‘Good luck.’
The satellite had no issues with the feeblest rally attempt in baseball history: a Cain single, an inexcusable one-pitch Arcia AB wherein he popped a foul ball into Kurt Suzuki‘s mitt, a drive off the bat of warning-track power Ben Gamel, who lived up to that billing (with due deference to Gamel, a fourth outfielder par excellence this season, he’s better with line drives than deep flies.)
The game was over. That magical September run ended with an October thud, a gigantic eighth-inning number two for the ages. And all that precipitation just kept falling as the Nationals celebrated with their fans and/or paying ticketholders while the Brewers sauntered into the visiting clubhouse.
Like a reverse-Oz, I went through a storm, only to wake up in a grayscale nightmare.
There would be no joy in Bushville, no grudge match NLDS with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Just the thought of what might have been, the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s that come along with a devastating end to a season. What if Tony Wolters hadn’t blocked the plate? What if they hadn’t imploded in Denver last weekend? What if Christian Yelich were healthy? What if the stars aligned in just a different way? Why did I shift positions on the couch in the seventh?
Instead, we’re now looking at roster makeup going into next spring, the team is flying home and making tee times, most Wisconsinites have shrugged and gone back to following the latest developments in Packers equipment managers and Badger redshirt long snappers.
This is the best version of the best game. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t hurt so deeply. And I can’t wait for February when we do this all over again.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.