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Three Keys to the Brewers-Nationals NL Wild-Card Showdown

Is Max Scherzer healthy? How actively will Craig Counsell manage? Which set of young stars is ready to break through? The answers could determine who advances to face the Dodgers in the NLDS.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After six months of fierce competition, plus the occasional game against the Marlins, the National League wild-card race is set. For the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers, the season comes down to a one-night engagement in D.C. on Tuesday. Baseball is meant to be played at a light jog over long periods of time, so distilling an entire season down to a nine-inning sprint, as the Nationals and Brewers will, makes for an inherently weird, desperate, and unpredictable brand of baseball.

Just last year, the A’s mapped out an exacting and unorthodox approach to their matchup with the Yankees, only to find themselves out of it after six innings when their bullpen—their greatest strength—faltered. In the other league, the Rockies went to Wrigley Field and beat the heavily favored Cubs in a 13-inning siege as Tony Wolters, a backup catcher with a .286 slugging percentage, delivered the coup de grace.

In short, anything is possible in a winner-takes-all game, but whatever unpredictable weirdness ends up determining the outcome will likely stem from one of these three questions.

1. Is Nationals ace Max Scherzer healthy?

It almost feels sacrilegious to ask whether Scherzer’s up to the task. When he’s on, there’s no better pitcher in baseball, and few approach their starts with more ferocity and intensity than Mad Max. Under ordinary circumstances, manager Dave Martinez could hand the ball to his ace and spend the next seven innings talking to the club’s traveling secretary about flights to Los Angeles for the NLDS.

But these are not ordinary circumstances, nor is this the Kershaw Playoff Narrative–style concern trolling that takes place whenever a Cy Young winner loses a playoff game. At the All-Star break, Scherzer was the front-runner to win a fourth Cy Young award, but he missed about four weeks in the second half with back and shoulder injuries, and hasn’t quite been himself since he came back. In seven starts since returning from injury, Scherzer has a 4.74 ERA with eight home runs allowed and a .751 opponent OPS, and hasn’t completed seven innings in any of those starts.

Under GM Mike Rizzo, the Nationals have always made a great effort to ensure that they don’t have just one ace, and this year is no exception. Stephen Strasburg has a decent shot at winning his first Cy Young and did some of his best work down the stretch; in his last eight starts he held opponents to a .165/.238/.273 line and posted a 1.76 ERA. This past offseason the Nats signed left-hander Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and in Year 1 Corbin delivered to the tune of a 141 ERA+ in 202 innings. Either one of those pitchers would be the best starter on half the teams in this playoff field, including the Brewers. If Scherzer isn’t 100 percent, he genuinely might not be the best man for the job with such impressive no. 2 and no. 3 starters behind him.

But it’s not clear that Scherzer’s seven-start sample is evidence of a greater underlying problem. And it’s perfectly defensible to start Scherzer despite his second-half issues. First of all, I’m not sure I’d want to tell Scherzer to his face that he wasn’t starting the most important game of the season. He can get a little shouty in those situations. Second, an ace who runs a 4.74 ERA over a month and a half wouldn’t even register as a problem on a team that didn’t have Strasburg and Corbin, and his underlying numbers—54 strikeouts and eight walks in 38 innings—were almost exactly in line with his full-season per-inning averages. Even if he’s not up for a 120-pitch solo performance, Scherzer can still throw the hell out of the ball for five or six innings.

That’s probably what will happen, as Martinez has made clear that both Strasburg and Corbin will be available out of the bullpen in lieu of a normal side session. Either one or both could pitch an inning or two without putting a Game 1 or Game 2 NLDS start in jeopardy. That’s quite an insurance policy, but it might not be enough if Scherzer gives up a big inning early.

It’s hard not to feel for Martinez, because this might be the only time in the past five years that starting Scherzer in a winner-takes-all game is not a no-brainer. But with so much on the line and so little room for error, he needs the real Scherzer to show up.

2. What does Brewers manager Craig Counsell have up his sleeves?

Last year’s Brewers won the top seed in the NL thanks to a lights-out bullpen and the individual heroics of reigning MVP Christian Yelich. Now, Yelich is out for the season with a broken kneecap and of their top four relievers last year—Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Corbin Burnes—only Hader was both healthy and effective this year. Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw are shadows of what they were last year, and Jesús Aguilar, like Jeffress and the top two starters in last year’s playoff rotation—Jhoulys Chacín and Wade Miley—is no longer with the organization.

And in addition to season-ending injuries to Yelich and Knebel, the Brewers also have to contend with minor injuries to Cain and Ryan Braun, both of whom are questionable to start against Washington. So Counsell, who emptied his bench seemingly every game last October, will have to get creative.

Last postseason, Counsell’s greatest tactical foil was his NLCS opponent, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Unlike Roberts, Martinez is far from an inveterate tinkerer and platooner. Martinez used 106 different lineups this year, not counting starting pitchers, while Counsell used 134, Roberts used 139, and Joe Maddon used 140.

Not counting interim managers, Counsell was the third-most-likely manager to use a pinch hitter and used the fifth most pitchers per game. Martinez pinch-hit less frequently than any other NL manager and finished tied for 17th across all of MLB in pitchers used per game. That’s understandable, because Martinez’s players are better than Counsell’s and he therefore can set the lineup and get out of the way. But it also means that while Martinez has one big decision to make—when to pull Scherzer—Counsell has to make numerous small ones, and every one of them could determine whether his team keeps playing or goes home.

Counsell has tapped All-Star right-hander Brandon Woodruff to start in Washington, which makes it seem unlikely that he’ll pull some sort of opener or opener-adjacent trick in the early innings. But only one Brewers starter in the season’s last six weeks has thrown a pitch in the seventh inning. The last Brewers pitcher to last more than six innings in a playoff start was Randy Wolf in Game 4 of the 2011 NLCS. So when will Woodruff come out: After two times through the lineup? Or perhaps after only two innings? How long can Hader go, and which pitchers will bridge the gap?

With Yelich on the shelf, first baseman Eric Thames might be Milwaukee’s second-best hitter against right-handed pitchers, and will probably start against Scherzer, but his platoon split is 200 points of OPS worse against lefties, so what will Counsell do if Corbin is the first arm out of the pen after Scherzer, and how will the team adjust defensively after going to the bench? Counsell will have to pull the right lever on these questions and numerous others if the Brewers are to come out on top, especially if one or both of Braun or Cain aren’t 100 percent, or if Woodruff has to be removed early.

3. Which side’s young stars are ready?

One of the few things these two teams have in common is their reliance on extremely young and relatively inexperienced position players. With Yelich out of the lineup, Milwaukee’s leading hitter is rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, who turned 23 in August and is in just his third professional season. Hiura hit .303/.368/.570 in 84 games this season and has batted cleanup seven times in his 12 starts since Yelich got hurt.

Apart from Anthony Rendon, Washington’s best position player is 20-year-old left fielder Juan Soto (.282/.401/.548), who plays alongside 22-year-old Víctor Robles (.255/.326/.419). Hiura and Soto have never played a postseason game before, while the sum total of Robles’s experience was two substitute appearances in the 2017 NLDS, so this is effectively terra incognita for all three.

Hiura and Soto both have the capacity to make a huge mark on the game offensively, and the bright lights of the postseason could turn into a springboard to stardom for either player. But Robles in particular is worth keeping an eye on because of his defense and baserunning.

Robles led all NL center fielders in errors this year with six, and was caught stealing nine times, tied for second most in the NL. In spite of his propensity to mar his baseball card stats with the occasional mistake, Robles grades out on the advanced metrics as a good defensive center fielder and an excellent base runner overall. But he got to those numbers not through consistent small gains but by taking big risks, and while those risks pay off more often than not, when things go wrong, they can go badly wrong.

This game could be the coming-out party for any one of these three young players, or a night they spend the next year or more trying to live down. The razor-thin line between heroism and failure in a single-elimination baseball contest makes the wild-card game one of baseball’s great entertainment innovations of the 21st century, but also turns it into a crucible for all involved. There’s no room for error, for rookies and three-time Cy Young winners alike.