NL Wild Card preview: Brewers and Nationals hoping for Cinderella run

The wild card game was invented for teams like the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals. One team recovered from a rock bottom that could have derailed their season as early as May. The other overcame the loss of their superstar and played their best baseball down the stretch.

The Nationals are competing in their first wild-card game, and the appearance marks their fifth in the postseason since 2012. On May 23, the Nationals fell to 19-31 and rumors surrounding manager Dave Martinez’s job security ran rampant. Since then, the Nationals are MLB’s best in team batting (.275) and on-base percentage (.353) and the National League leaders in runs (523), RBI (620) and OPS (.830).

Should they advance to the NLDS, Washington has the rotation depth and the star power in the lineup that could help them win the first playoff series in their 50-year history. They’ll unload their first rotation bullet, Max Scherzer, in the wild-card game. Anthony Rendon, who should at least be a finalist for NL MVP, anchors a lineup that blends young superstars like Trea Turner and Juan Soto with stable veterans like Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick and late-season addition Asdrubal Cabrera.

The Brewers are making their first back-to-back playoff appearances since the 1981-1982 seasons. Milwaukee has been without MVP candidate and batting title champ Christian Yelich since he fractured his kneecap on Sept. 10. The Brewers maintained their position in the standings without Yelich and eventually pushed passed the division rival Chicago Cubs for the second wild-card spot with a 13-5 stretch run.

Even without Yelich, the Brewers win games with one of the deepest lineups and strongest bullpens in the game. Rookies Keston Hiura and Trent Grisham have filled significant roles to help stabilize a lineup with veterans like Ryan Braun, Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. Josh Hader has been one of the best closers in baseball since his MLB debut in 2017, and it’s a fair guess that he’ll pitch at least one inning Tuesday.

Max Scherzer and Josh Hader are the two most important pitchers to watch in the NL wild-card game. (Getty Images(

Game details

Tuesday at Nationals Parks in Washington D.C. First pitch is at 8:08 p.m. ET with TV coverage on TBS.

Previously

The Brewers won four of the six games in the season series against the Nationals. Milwaukee contributed to Washington’s rock bottom in early May with a three-game sweep at Miller Field. In August, the Nationals won two of three in Washington, with their only loss coming on a 14-inning, 29-run instant classic in which both the winning and losing pitchers were named Guerra. It’s worth noting that Yelich appeared in all six of those games.

Pitching

Brandon Woodruff (11-3, 3.62) vs. Max Scherzer (11-7, 2.92)

The Nationals had three terrific options to start this game, but it’s no surprise that Dave Martinez went with Scherzer. The Brewers have less stability in that area and instead opted to go with experience over the hot hand. Both starters missed significant time in the second half. Woodruff (left oblique strain) made only a pair of two-inning starts in late September after being shut down on July 21. Scherzer (upper back strain) made only one appearance between July 6 and Aug. 22 but hasn’t missed a turn in the rotation since then.

Scherzer had Cy Young hopes before his injury and has consistently been one of baseball’s best pitchers for the past decade. He hasn’t been at his best since returning from the injured list, but he still has the potential to be a nightmare for opposing hitters. Woodruff might be more of an opener Tuesday, which his recent workload might suggest. The Brewers have five options — Gio Gonzalez, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and Jordan Lyles have been excellent in September — for a piggyback starter to bridge the gap to Brent Suter and Josh Hader at the back of the bullpen to close the game.

Nationals keys to victory

  • Let the big dogs eat. Scherzer needs to gobble up as many innings as possible. The Nationals rank at the bottom of the NL in bullpen ERA. Although that unit has performed much better in the past two months, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle are really the club’s only trustworthy options down the stretch. Ideally, Scherzer could hand the ball directly to those two with a lead late in the game. Also, a lineup that’s half All-Stars should present a tougher challenge for a team that’s bullpenning (just ask the 2018 A’s).

Brewers keys to victory

  • Smell the blood in the water. The Brewers, who finished third in the NL with 250 homers, can pounce on Scherzer who has had his own problems with the long ball in those seven starts since his return. If they can make Scherzer work early and keep the game close until the bullpens duke it out, they should keep the advantage in the later innings. Where the Nationals struggle, the Brewers thrive. Their bullpen compiled an MLB-best 3.10 ERA over the final 30 days of the season. Woodruff and whoever comes in next just have to at least keep the game close.

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