WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals were four outs from elimination with the bases loaded on Tuesday when a feeling of serenity came over Mike Rizzo, their general manager. Rizzo was watching the National League wild-card game with his senior adviser, Jack McKeon, who is 88 years old. The hitter at the plate, Juan Soto, was 20.
“Right man in the right spot,” Rizzo told McKeon, and a moment later, everything had changed — the game, for sure, but also the sense of dread that stalks this tortured franchise. Soto cleared the bases with a single that skidded past Trent Grisham in right field, lifting the Nationals past the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, and into a division series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“That’s the man I wanted up,” Rizzo said later, as his players romped around the soggy, boozy home clubhouse at Nationals Park. “Left on left against a great left-handed pitcher was fine with me — with him. He’s a terrific young man and a really good player, too.”
The Brewers’ left-hander, Josh Hader, had been summoned in the bottom of the eighth for a six-out save. This is precisely what Milwaukee wanted: a two-run lead for an overpowering All-Star who had just posted the best strikeout rate ever by a pitcher with at least 70 innings.
“That was perfect, really,” said Craig Counsell, the Brewers’ manager. “We couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Hader fanned 16.4 batters per nine innings this season and had whiffed two in the eighth. But he had also hit a batter and allowed a single and a walk, bringing Soto to the plate. Soto had struck out in his first at-bat, then popped out and fanned again. A veteran teammate, Gerardo Parra, reassured him.
“Hey, the good moment is going to come, so be ready,” Soto said Parra told him. “No matter what happened in the past, just forget about it and keep going.”
The Nationals’ past does not apply to Soto. He was 13 years old in 2012, when the Nationals won their first N.L. East title but blew a two-run lead to St. Louis with one strike to go in the ninth inning of Game 5 in the division series.
By the time Soto signed with Washington — from the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million in July 2015 — the Nationals had lost another division series, to San Francisco in 2014. They fell again in that round in 2016 (to the Dodgers) and 2017 (to the Chicago Cubs).
“I know they always go to the playoffs, they always lose, something like that,” Soto said. “But now we’re here, we try to fight, and we’re going to see how far we’re going to get.”
Soto, now in his second season, helped the Nationals storm back from a 19-31 start by hitting 34 homers with 110 runs batted in, a .401 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage. Only two other players have reached all those numbers at age 20 — Mel Ott for the Giants in 1929 and Alex Rodriguez for Seattle in 1996 — and they did not end those years in the postseason.
“He’s 20 years old, man,” said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who turns 36 this week. “I was in college at 20 years old. This guy’s hitting 30 and 100 in the big leagues at 20 years old, playing in the postseason. He’s a joke.”
The Nationals have thrived by developing high-impact stars like Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman, and all played pivotal roles in the eighth.
Strasburg kept the deficit at 3-1 with his third shutout inning, capping his first relief appearance since 2007, when he was a freshman at San Diego State. With two outs and one on, Zimmerman — the first player the Nationals drafted after moving from Montreal in 2005 — punched a broken-bat pinch-hit single to center. Rendon, who only led the majors in R.B.I. this season, then walked to load the bases.
Soto cleared them with help from Grisham, who said he charged too quickly on the hit, which “took a funny hop” on him and rolled away, taking Milwaukee’s season with it.
“It’s not how you want your first playoff game to go,” Grisham said. “We expected to win. There’s all kinds of thoughts and emotions that run through your head. It just kind of stings right now.”
If Soto stung at all from his first playoff game, it was only from Champagne in his eyes. He could be embarking on a postseason with few precedents for his age: Think of Jim Palmer throwing a shutout for Baltimore in the 1966 World Series or Miguel Cabrera leading the Marlins, managed by McKeon, to the title in 2003.
For now, of course, the Nationals’ path is just beginning. They will start Patrick Corbin in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, but are likely to be without Max Scherzer and Strasburg until the series returns here for Game 3 on Sunday.
As the Nationals partied late Tuesday night, those seemed like trivial factors. In their 15th year in town, they had finally earned a postseason celebration. It was long overdue.
“The last five, six years have been a fun time to be a Nats fan here,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t really been able to get over the hump. Maybe this is it, maybe it isn’t, who knows? All I can say is, we’re a pretty darn fun team to watch.”