WASHINGTON — On the morning of the first playoff game of his already storied career, Juan Soto’s mother made him breakfast. Mangù: chicken and plantains. That she was in D.C. to see her son and not home in the Dominican Republic was the only indication that this game day was unlike all the others that had come before for the Washington Nationals’ 20-year-old phenom in his sophomore season.
If she is prone to believe in these sort of things, she might have feared that this would be her only chance to watch Juan play in October. Since arriving in Washington, the Nationals have been haunted by an inability to win a playoff series. A fact that was uniquely distilled into nine innings on Tuesday, when they played in their first wild-card game.
Other than mom’s breakfast? “I think everything was kind of the same,” Soto said pregame. “I just prayed and get here, and now we're getting ready for the game.”
A man named Bob Williams, a lifelong D.C. resident with a plush shark coming out of the belly of his T-shirt, doesn’t like the one-game wild-card playoff structure. Too stressful. To have a whole season come down to this?
“It’s not even fair for Milwaukee,” he says magnanimously. And fair is a funny concept in sports, especially baseball, but of course this makes sense. Baseball games are too fluky for that to be fair.
Will you feel differently if the Nationals win? I ask.
“No,” he said, and I appreciate his ideological consistency.
Last year, Craig Counsell managed the Milwaukee Brewers to a division title and his first postseason experience by besting the Chicago Cubs in a winner-take-all Game 163. It was the kind of single-game “series” that only ever happens immediately after baseball’s seven-month slog because of a tiebreaker or a wild-card game. Last year was the tiebreaker. This year, the Brewers got the wild-card game.
Those games are similar, with the intensity and the stakes of having your whole season come down to this one shot. But ahead of 2019 wild-card game, Counsell talked about what makes them different.
“You do hedge some things in that game,” he said of the Game 163 his team played last year, with at least a wild-card berth assured. “You won't be as risky in those games. You will save stuff in a game like that, depending on the score.
“In this game, you don't.”
No matter your natural disposition, that has to be stressful. I mean, what is pressure if not the acute awareness that the moment for excellence is upon you? Sitting in the interview room of a hostile ballpark before 42,993 fans began booing his team, Counsell didn’t seem anxious, though. He said that he is calmer as the game gets closer, in fact. The trick, he said, is to think about how you’re about to see something special.
“I look forward to walking in after the game and saying, ‘Man, can you believe he did that? That was incredible. That was an incredible performance.’”
He was right. That was incredible.
The Brewers took the lead in the first three minutes of the game on a walk and then a two-run home run off three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. The next inning they added a solo shot. Dave Martinez leaves Scherzer in, lets him hit for himself. This was going to be the storyline, the decision to second-guess, and the thing considered indicative of an endemic failure in D.C.
In the fourth inning, the Nationals Park fire alarm goes off and the PA system shuts down. The cheers drown out the silence but the Presidents’ Race is a mess and there is a dissonance to the in-game experience. The Nationals are going quietly into the night, overmatched by the Brewers’ bullpen maneuvering.
It’s fixed quickly and the team releases a statement, assuring attendants, “There is no emergency at the ballpark.”
The jokes write themselves; so do the ledes.
Sometime around then, Gerardo Parra finds Soto in the dugout and assures him, “A good moment is going to come, so be ready.”
We wouldn’t know about this exchange — which would have happened either way — except that it did, and he was.
We talk in terms of momentum a lot in baseball — the Nationals’ eight-game winning streak coming into tonight, the Brewers getting swept without Christian Yelich to end the season — but no sport is more discrete. We talk in terms of metaphors a lot in sports — at least what it all means to a franchise or a city or the next matchup — but no game is more literal than a wild-card game. The stakes of each play are reflected immediately in the box score. All of the pathos of the sport is reduced to whether you’re moving closer to a win in this one game, and suddenly the whole scene looks a lot more fraught. Each pivotal move erasing the last, to say nothing of the near misses.
Consider the experience of Soto juxtaposed with that of Trent Grisham.
The Brewers’ 22-year-old rookie started the season in Double-A, replacing Yelich in right field after the reigning MVP’s season-ending injury last month. Grisham scored the first run of the 2019 playoffs after taking that leadoff walk. In that way, he could have been the difference-maker. Seven and a half innings later, he misplayed a ball hit by Soto with the bases loaded. Instead of two runs scoring to tie the game, a third run scored on his error, giving the Nationals the lead that would break their October curse. In that way, he was the difference-maker.
Was it the stress of the single-elimination game that got to him? “No, ma’am,” he says standing in a somber clubhouse of teammates waiting to tell him it’s OK. It stings now, but it’s a future of being followed around by that one play that will hurt the most. "I don't think it got to me at all. I just ended up making an error. It's not my first. It's not going to be my last. It just happened that way."
Until the go-ahead hit that will make him a local hero and immutably tie him to Grisham, Soto was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. In the fourth inning he misplayed a ball hit by Eric Thames that ended up being a double. By then Scherzer had settled down — he would only have to get through one more inning before a lights-out Stephen Strasburg made the first relief appearance of his career — and Thames ended up stranded on third. No one will remember Soto’s miscue. It just happens that way.
Soto’s mom is not supposed to go with him to Los Angeles, where the Nationals will face off against the 106-win Dodgers in the National League Division Series. She has to go back to the Dominican, to work, he said.
“I really sad for that, but I try to bring her before everything is done,” he said.
Except she has to go to L.A., right? They won. A game and a postseason round and the first indelible October moment of an all-time career. And now, since it was publicized and came at exactly the right time, the breakfast, which was just plantains and chicken, has been imbued with meaning. The way that a hit or a miscue, if it happens on a big stage at exactly the right time, can be imbued with the weight of an entire season. It’s not fair, necessarily, but it’s incredible.
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