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Juan Soto and the glory of wild card baseball

The twists and turns of an elimination playoff game are what makes them the most dramatic stories in sports.

Juan Soto celebrates after driving in the game-winning runs for the Washington Nationals in the NL Wild Card game. Baseball playoffs! Getty Images / SB Nation illustration

With the Nationals down, 3-1, in the eighth inning of Tuesday night’s National League wild card game, facing the Brewers’ highly touted closer, hope seemed all but lost. Washington appeared poised to get eliminated from the playoffs without advancing yet again.

Home runs from Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames had given Milwaukee their lead as the Brewers got to starting pitcher Max Scherzer early in the game, and it seemed as though all eyes would be on Grandal’s heroics stamping the team’s ticket to Los Angeles to take on his former teammates.

Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz made short work of Washington’s hitters. Josh Hader, with 37 saves this season, looked likely to do the same.

Baseball, for me, is about the story the game tells you along the way. And up to this point, Milwaukee was weaving a good one. They did exactly what they needed to and got their damage in before Steven Strasburg entered for three dominant innings of relief. But the best stories are full of surprises, and this one turned on a dime.

Hader was poised to play the baseball hero tonight. Until, that is, he actually threw the ball and it became apparent he didn’t have the best control. He struck out Victor Robles, leaning heavily on his high 90s fastball, but in his battle with Michael Taylor that fastball was all over the place. He got what might have been a bad-luck call (depending on who you ask) on a hit-by-pitch that was challenged, but ultimately upheld. That would not be the last of the twists unfolding for the Brewers in that inning.

After striking out Turner, Ryan Zimmerman knocked a shattered-bat bloop single right into the middle of a pyramid of players converging on the play. None of them managed to get close, and Lorenzo Cain didn’t even end up getting a throw off after retrieving the ball. Taylor was already on third.

What happened next spurred one of the greatest feelings in sports. A moment that turns a group of 40,000 fans into one singular unit. A moment that makes this game magical and what led me to believe that the Brewers weren’t winning this game.

Anthony Rendon came up to bat and the crowd, which had been desperate for something to cheer for all night (aside from the Trea Turner home run in the third), joined in on a massive and singular chant of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” so loud they could hear it in Bethesda.

These are the moments players dream of. The moments fans dream of. Your best player against the other team’s closer with everything on the line in an elimination game. And for the first time, the Washington fans looked like they believed.

Rendon walked, of course, but the electricity generated by his appearance affected the confidence and energy levels of the crowd as Juan Soto stepped up with the bases loaded. Ultimately it was Soto who got the hero’s role in this story, as his line drive single scooted past Trent Grisham’s woeful attempt at a grab, and he tied up the defense long enough for all three runners to score and take the lead.

The twists and turns of an elimination game are what make them so appealing. It can be as glorious as it is heartbreaking, and often both at the same time, depending on who is telling the story. For every Soto, who will relish this moment for the rest of his life, there’s a Grisham who’ll never be allowed to forget it. For every Madison Bumgarner who was heralded for his performance in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, there’s a Clayton Kershaw in, well, the playoffs.

You see it in the fanbase who watches their playoff dreams die without a series win four times in six years, but also the fans who got to watch their team win a dramatic wild card game at home in a very unlikely fashion. It’s the give and take of baseball. You can’t hope to predict it, and it could never be scripted. But if it were, it would probably look an awful lot like this game.