We were reminded again this week how the smallest of sample sizes can still effect enormous change, even when Major League Baseball is cemented in analytics, even when mathematical reason suggests that one play or one game shouldn’t dramatically sway decisions. Consider how the events over the past 10 weeks played out, improbably.
On Oct. 1, the Washington Nationals were four outs away from being eliminated in the National League wild-card game. Working to protect a 3-1 lead, Milwaukee’s Josh Hader struck out two of the first three hitters he faced in the bottom of the eighth inning. But then Ryan Zimmerman singled, Anthony Rendon walked and Juan Soto pulled a hit to right field — and the ball rolled under the glove of the Brewers’ Trent Grisham. The Nationals led 4-3 — and survived.
Eight days later, the Dodgers led Washington 3-1 in the top of the eighth inning, six outs from winning the deciding Game 5 in the teams’ division series. But Rendon homered off Clayton Kershaw, Soto followed with another homer, and two innings later, Howie Kendrick blasted a grand slam. The Nationals survived, again.
In Game 7 of the World Series, Houston led 2-0, eight outs away from a title. But Rendon homered off Zack Greinke, Soto walked — yes, those guys again — before Kendrick whistled a low line drive down the right-field line. The ball carried over the wall by five feet or so, ricocheting off the middle of the screen at the base of the foul pole.
Later, as the Nationals celebrated their championship, Houston manager A.J. Hinch spoke with reporters about his pivotal choices that didn’t work out. “It’s a decision I’ll have to live with,” he said. “I’ll think about it.”
Stephen Strasburg pitched brilliantly and was named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series, the first championship by a Washington baseball team in almost 100 years, and no longer was Strasburg merely an excellent and valuable pitcher, he was part of an enduring legacy. No matter what happens with the Nationals over the next half-century, through great and bad times, invites will forever be issued to Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Rendon and Soto to throw out first pitches, to wave to the fans, and they will be cheered.
If the Nats had failed to come back against the Brewers — if Grisham fields Soto’s hit cleanly, perhaps — everything would’ve been different. If they hadn’t come back against the Dodgers, or if Kendrick’s line drive landed three feet to the right, the context would’ve been different.