Juan Soto stood in the middle of the infield, his helmet ripped off his head, his arms punching the air as the Nationals Park crowd of nearly 43,000 leaped and high-fived and screamed all around him.

He had just smacked a two-out single to right field in the eighth inning, and the ball skipped through the grass before trickling off Trent Grisham’s glove. Three runners came around to score. The Washington Nationals took a 4-3 lead, and that held as the winning margin in the National League wild-card game Tuesday night. The victory pushed the Nationals into the NL Division Series, a best-of-five fight with the Dodgers that will begin Thursday night in Los Angeles.

And it made Soto, 20, teeming with star power, the hero in a moment that almost never ­happened.

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The Nationals were nearly buried when Max Scherzer gave up three runs on two homers in the first two innings. They couldn’t touch the Brewers’ bullpen almost all night, flailing against Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz for three innings, failing to scratch the scoreboard outside Trea Turner’s third-inning homer off starter Brandon Woodruff.

But they stayed in it. They rallied against Josh Hader, the Brewers’ flame-throwing left-handed reliever, with one out in the eighth. It began with Michael A. Taylor getting hit by a pitch. It continued with two outs, with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate, when the ­35-year-old flared a broken-bat single into shallow center. Then Hader walked Anthony Rendon on a 3-2 pitch to bring Soto to the plate. The lefty-lefty matchup ­favored the pitcher.

The result sent the ballpark into delirium. It left the Nationals’ bench spilled onto the field, grabbing at one another’s jerseys, watching Soto step onto the grass and roar back at the crowd that was showering him with every bit of noise it could muster.

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“You know when you get goose bumps?” Soto said of how he felt once his single landed in the outfield. “That’s how I feel. Since I hit the base hit, I got some goose bumps.”

The lasting images of the Nationals’ night will be their second champagne-soaked celebration in a week. It will be Soto, drenched in Budweiser and bubbles, trying to yell over the music as reporters peppered him with questions. It will be the young outfielder, still too young to legally drink alcohol, reaching into the recycling bin for an empty bottle to hold while he danced with his teammates. It will be him gripping his father’s shoulder, his face a spitting image of his old man’s, while he did a TV interview immediately after the game. It will be reliever Sean Doolittle, goggles strapped to his face, holding a Star Wars lightsaber while he hugged Scherzer and told him, “We [expletive] did it again.”

But the lasting images were nearly far less happy. They were nearly not happy at all. They were nearly just like the rest of the autumns here, finishing in harrowing defeat, because the Nationals had dropped the other three elimination games they had played here since 2012. The end of the season — one that started so poorly, then arrived in October with a full head of steam — was almost Scherzer, their ace, their unquestioned leader, whipping around to watch a baseball sail over the wall. Twice. There had been doubt about whether Scherzer should start in the first place. He missed six weeks this summer with a string of injuries, including a mid-back strain, bursitis in the scapula below his right shoulder and, finally, a mild rhomboid muscle strain that stole a month.

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But the Nationals went with Scherzer, their best pitcher for the past half-decade, the pitcher who has so often lifted this club onto his shoulders. He didn’t do that Tuesday. He wilted by giving up a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal in the first and a solo shot to Eric Thames in the second.

Stephen Strasburg, whom many wanted to start instead of Scherzer, stretched a bit in the bullpen. But he didn’t throw any pitches before Scherzer’s spot in the batting order came up in the third. That was Manager Dave Martinez’s first chance to hook Scherzer and use a batter off his eight-man bench. But the ace finished five innings before Strasburg jogged in from the bullpen, and the questions were already piling up as the right-hander lumbered toward the mound: Was it too late? Was there time for him to clean up Scherzer’s mess and keep a slim deficit from growing? Or was Martinez’s initial decision just the beginning of the end?

“To go down 3-0 against that bullpen, the way that they were set up in this game, them getting out to an early lead, it’s not ideal,” Zimmerman said. “But we just tried to fight back. It was … just keep going, keep going.”

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The answers arrived in a slow stream: Strasburg blanked the Brewers for three innings, keeping the Nationals two runs behind. And, finally, up came Soto with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth. Soto dug into the batter’s box with the crowd on its feet. The scouting report for Hader was to “sell out” on his fastball, just not if it was too high, only if it was around the hands or lower. Hitting coach Kevin Long told Soto to zero in on that pitch and see if he could get it early in the count.

Soto did get it. He lifted a line drive to right, scoring Taylor, pinch runner Andrew Stevenson and Rendon. Soon Daniel Hudson recorded the final three outs, just minutes after the go-ahead hit, and red fireworks shot into the air above the ballpark.

“Once he hit it, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m definitely scoring,’ ” said Stevenson, who was leading off second, his red eyes growing wider with each word. “Then I saw it hit off Grisham’s glove and I thought, ‘Oh, everybody’s scoring!’ ”

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The team sprinted out of the dugout and toward Hudson once the final out was safe in Victor Robles’s glove in center field. Soto ran in from left, screaming again, but stopped before reaching the infield dirt. He knelt down to the field, the same field that has hosted so much October heartbreak, and slapped his chest twice before joining the celebration. It was, after all, happening because of him.

— Jesse Dougherty

Inning-by-inning recap

By Scott Allen

Ninth inning (Nationals 4, Brewers 3):

Daniel Hudson relieved Stephen Strasburg to start the ninth inning and struck out Eric Thames swinging to start the frame. Lorenzo Cain then lined a single to center before Orlando Arcia popped out to Kurt Suzuki behind home plate. Arcia slammed his bat into the dirt in disgust and retreated to the dugout as pinch-hitter Ben Gamel stepped into the batter’s box representing Milwaukee’s final hope. Gamel hit a line drive to center field, but Victor Robles tracked it down easily to record the final out, set off the fireworks and advance the Nationals to an NLDS date with the Dodgers.

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As Nationals players celebrated on the field and smoke from the fireworks dissipated, “You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles)” blared over the Nats Park speakers. It sounded even better than a “Baby Shark” chomp-along would have.

Eighth inning (Nationals 4, Brewers 3):

Stephen Strasburg retired the first two hitters he faced in the eighth inning before Keston Hiura, a strikeout victim in his first three at-bats, ripped a double down the left field line. Ryan Braun grounded out to third base to end the threat and deny the Brewers an insurance run. Milwaukee closer Josh Hader passed on using the bullpen cart and jogged to the mound to replace Pomeranz to start the Nationals’ eighth.

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Hader, who struck out 138 and walked only 20 in 75 2/3 innings during the regular season, began his appearance with a head-high, 98 mph fastball that had Victor Robles spinning out of the batter’s box. Robles would eventually strike out swinging on a full count. Michael A. Taylor, pinch-hitting for Stephen Strasburg, started to offer at a 3-2 fastball up and in that appeared to hit his hand before deflecting off the knob of the bat. Umpires awarded Taylor first base on a hit by pitch and the call was upheld by replay review after the Brewers challenged.

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Representing the tying run, Trea Turner struck out on a 97-mph fastball above the zone. Ryan Zimmerman then pinch-hit for Adam Eaton, and with much of the crowd standing for what could be his final at-bat in a Nationals uniform, Zimmerman hit a broken-bat single to center field that put runners on the corners and two outs for Anthony Rendon.

Rendon took Hader’s first three pitches for balls. The M-V-P chants grew louder. After a called strike on 3-0 and a foul ball to the right side, he watched another high fastball go by to load the bases for Juan Soto.

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The drama! On a 1-1 pitch, Soto ripped a line drive to right field that Trent Grisham charged and watched trickle under his glove allowing all three runners to score. Soto was caught in a rundown between second and third and tagged out for the final out of the inning, but was pumping his arms and gesturing toward the home dugout by the time that happened. The Nats needed three outs to advance to the NLDS.

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Seventh inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 1):

There’s no telling how Stephen Strasburg would have performed had he started instead of Max Scherzer on Tuesday, but he was dominant in his first two innings of relief. The right-hander got Orlando Arcia to ground out to start the seventh before striking out pitcher Drew Pomeranz looking and Trent Grisham swinging. Strasburg’s third strikeout of the game drew a roar from the Nats Park crowd, which remained on its feet as DC Washington sang “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Drew Pomeranz retired the Nationals in order in the seventh, getting Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera to ground out to shortstop before Kurt Suzuki hit a chopper to third. Like that, Washington was down to its final six outs with one of the game’s best closers lurking in the Brewers’ bullpen.

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Sixth inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 1):

Stephen Strasburg, who some believed should have started against the Brewers, came on in relief of Max Scherzer to start the sixth. Scherzer’s final line: three runs on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts over five innings. Scherzer didn’t allow two home runs in the first two innings of any of his 27 starts all season. That changed Tuesday, and as Gerardo Parra might say, “That’s baseball.”

Strasburg, pitching in relief for the first time in his professional career, allowed a single to Ryan Braun on his first pitch before getting Eric Thames to shatter his bat on a double play grounder to Anthony Rendon, who, in the Nats’ shift, was playing closer to where shortstop Trea Turner normally would have been. Strasburg ended the inning with a four-pitch strikeout of Lorenzo Cain.

Adam Eaton led off the Nationals’ sixth with a line drive to left fielder Ryan Braun against lefty Drew Pomeranz, who relieved Brent Suter. Pomeranz, a starter for the first eight years of his major league career, was dominant out of the bullpen after the Brewers acquired him from the Giants at the trade deadline and converted him into a reliever. He looked good in his fourth career postseason appearance, getting Anthony Rendon to strike out looking and Juan Soto swinging to end the frame.

Fifth inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 1):

From the weird things happen during playoff baseball games department: Fire alarms started going off throughout Nationals Park and the PA system was lost in the top of the fourth, resulting in an awkward mid-inning Presidents’ Race. The PA system was back up and running by the start of the fifth, which began with Max Scherzer on the mound.

Travis Shaw pinch-hit for Brandon Woodruff to start the fifth inning and drew a walk against Scherzer, which prompted Daniel Hudson to start warming in the Washington bullpen. After a Trent Grisham pop out, Scherzer issued an eight-pitch walk to Yasmani Grandal. One pitch after Mike Moustakas lined a fastball that landed inches foul past the first base bag, and with Stephen Strasburg also warming, Scherzer got the Brewers’ third baseman to pop out to Anthony Rendon. With much of the Nats Park crowd on its feet, Scherzer struck out Keston Hiura for the third time.

Left-hander Brent Suter relieved Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff to start the fifth inning. Woodruff was solid, allowing one run on two hits while striking out three in four innings of work. With two outs in the fifth inning, Victor Robles laced a single to left field, injecting some life into the announced crowd of 42,933. Pinch-hitting for Max Scherzer, Brian Dozier took a couple of questionable called strikes before hitting a sharp one-hopper to Mike Moustakas. The Brewers’ third baseman made a diving stop on the play, but his ensuing throw pulled first baseman Eric Thames off the bag, and Dozier was ruled safe. The Brewers challenged the call, but the ruling on the field was upheld upon replay review, giving the Nationals men on first and second with two outs. Trea Turner, who accounted for Washington’s only run with a solo homer in the third inning, flew out to center to end the Nationals’ best threat of the game.

Fourth inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 1):

Howie Kendrick snared a Ryan Braun line drive for the first out of the fourth inning before Eric Thames sent a towering flyball to left. Juan Soto drifted under it and had room on the warning track to make a play, but appeared to lose sight of the ball at the last second and it bounced off the wall for what was ruled a double. After Lorenzo Cain grounded out to short, Scherzer struck out Orlando Arcia on a slider in the dirt to avoid any further damage.

Brandon Woodruff remained in the game for the Brewers to start the bottom of the fourth and retired Anthony Rendon on a grounder to third. Juan Soto followed with a foul out along the third base line that made Washington’s 2-3-4 hitters 0 for 6 with two strikeouts, and Howie Kendrick ended the inning with a liner to left.

Third inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 1):

Yasmani Grandal, who homered off Max Scherzer in the first inning, flew out to right field to lead off the third. Scherzer then struck out Mike Moustakas swinging on a nasty cutter and got Keston Hiura to flail at a change-up to retire the side. Scherzer received a standing ovation as he walked off the field.

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez made the first questionable decision of the game when he allowed Max Scherzer to hit for himself after Victor Robles struck out looking to start the third inning. Scherzer, who clearly didn’t have his best stuff working, grounded out harmlessly to shortstop. Any one of the bats available on Martinez’s well-stocked bench would have been a better option to start a rally. Trea Turner followed with a solo home run into the Brewers’ bullpen to cut the deficit to 3-1. Adam Eaton popped out to short to end the inning. With Brandon Woodruff at 45 pitches, there was action in the Brewers bullpen.

Second inning (Brewers 3, Nationals 0):

Max Scherzer’s nightmarish start continued in the second, as Eric Thames led off the inning with a home run over the scoreboard in right-center field. The Nationals bullpen was stirring after Thames crossed home plate to give Milwaukee a 3-0 lead.

After Lorenzo Cain grounded out, Orlando Arcia singled to right and Brandon Woodruff sacrificed him to second. With two outs, Scherzer got Trent Grisham swinging on his 28th pitch of the game.

Brandon Woodruff struck out Juan Soto on a 99-mph fastball above the zone to lead off the second inning before Howie Kendrick gave the Nationals their first base runner of the game with a sharp single to left field. After Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a routine fly out, Kurt Suzuki put a charge in a ball to left field, but Ryan Braun chased it down a step shy of the wall.

First inning (Brewers 2, Nationals 0):

In his last playoff start, Game 1 of the 2017 NLDS, Max Scherzer was perfect through three innings with four strikeouts. Scherzer started Tuesday’s game with a leadoff walk to right fielder Trent Grisham. Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal ripped Scherzer’s next pitch into the Nationals bullpen to give Milwaukee a 2-0 lead and stun the Nationals Park crowd.

Scherzer settled down somewhat after Grandal’s home run and a line out to left field by Mike Moustakas. Cleanup hitter Keston Hiura struck out swinging, and Ryan Braun, who received the loudest boos of the night when he was introduced, grounded out to third. Scherzer finished the inning at 18 pitches.

Making his third start since returning from an oblique injury that sidelined him for two months, Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff set down the Nats in order on 14 pitches. Trea Turner grounded out to short, Adam Eaton struck out swinging on a full count and Anthony Rendon, who stepped to the plate to scattered chants of “M-V-P,” popped out to first. Woodruff may be on a pitch count after not throwing more than 40 pitches in either of his previous two starts.

Pregame:

— 7:59 p.m.: Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett, who spent two years out of baseball and two years in the minor leagues after a gruesome elbow injury threatened his career, made an emotional return to the big leagues in September. “The Bear” didn’t make Washington’s wild-card game roster, but in the first truly cool moment of these playoffs, he threw the ceremonial first pitch. Presumably, he didn’t have to practice. Barrett waved his arms in the air to pump up the crowd before stepping on the mound, coming set and throwing a strike (the ghost umpire had a generous zone) to Harrisburg Senators Manager Matt Lecroy.

Former Nats fan favorite Michael Morse threw the ceremonial first pitch before the team’s last home playoff game in 2017. Unlike Morse, don’t expect Barrett to lead the crowd in a seventh-inning rendition of A-ha’s “Take On Me.”

— 7:44 p.m.: Nationals starter Max Scherzer received a standing ovation as he walked to the bullpen to begin his warm-up at 7:30. Scherzer, who will be making his fourth career postseason start with Washington, has dominated several of the big hitters in Brewers Manager Craig Counsell’s lineup in his career. Ryan Braun, Lorezno Cain and Yasmani Grandal are a combined 1 for 42 with 19 strikeouts against Scherzer. Rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, the Brewers’ cleanup hitter tonight, has never faced the Nats’ ace.

With half an hour to go before first pitch, a season highlight video is playing on the center field scoreboard. “Baby Shark” was featured, ever so briefly. Might we hear it again sometime tonight?

— 7:11 p.m.: Greetings from gradually filling Nationals Park, where the Brewers are just finishing batting practice and there’s a steady stream of red walking through the center field gates. If the building pressure of a winner-take-all game doesn’t make those in attendance sweat, the unseasonably muggy weather might. One person who isn’t stressed? Nationals left fielder Juan Soto.

“I feel amazing,” the 20-year-old said Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before his playoff debut. “I feel really happy, first time being here. I can’t wait to see the crowd, how it’s going to be today, and they’re going to be cheering and all this stuff. I’m going to be really excited. … It’s going to be fun.”

Pregame reading

Dave Martinez opens up on recent health issues. “I was so, so scared,” the Nationals manager said in an interview Saturday, offering his most detailed public account to date of the incident two weeks ago. Martinez’s description revealed the episode was far more alarming than previously known. There were tears in his eyes. “I started thinking about my kids, my family, my players, this team,” he said. “And then I thought: ‘Man, I am going to let so many people down.’ ” (Read more)

With a playoff history full of nightmares, the Nats enter this year eyes wide open. Let’s do a little exercise, which could be read as some exorcising instead, Barry Svrluga writes. Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg are the only Nationals players or coaches who have witnessed, up close and personal, how horrifying a coin-toss game can be. With the Brewers in town for the National League wild-card game Tuesday night, it’s the fans, not the players, who will hallucinate the crime-scene outlines on the field. (Read more)

How Dave Martinez should manage the Nationals’ bullpen tonight, and how he shouldn’t. This is not a game for Wander Suero, writes Svrluga. It is not a game for Fernando Rodney. This is a game in which your best available arms need to be used to somehow cobble together 27 outs, and there’s no way Stephen Strasburg — on full rest — isn’t among the Nats’ best available arms. (Read more)

Sharks are chomping at Nats Park, and I think we’re going to need a bigger bandwagon. “Good teams are a dime a dozen,” Thomas Boswell writes. “Teams that mortify themselves for 50 games, fall near the bottom of the sport, provoke people — including me — to call for the firing of the manager, then play 74-38 ball — which is about as excellent (.661) as the best MLB teams ever play for an extended period — are seriously uplifting.” (Read more)

Charting the wildest season in Nationals history. Here’s a closer look at the 10 games that swung the Nationals’ playoff chances the most during a roller-coaster ride to a wild-card berth. (Read more)

The 12 best moments from the Nationals’ wild 2019 season. From Scherzer striking out Bryce Harper in his return to Nats Park to a seven-run, ninth-inning comeback against the Mets, relive the highs from the past six months. (Read more)

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