The walks were the story of this game. The Washington Nationals accumulated nine walks, the Philadelphia Phillies four. In the fifth inning, Juan Soto broke a walk record that had stood since 1929.
On a warm Monday night in DC, 19,788 fans were on hand to watch the first game of an unusual five-game series between the Nationals (86-69) and the Phillies (79-76). This was the first time the Nationals had played a five-game series. A rainout on June 18 was rescheduled for 1:06 P.M. September 24 as the first game of a doubleheader. The standings had changed somewhat since the rainout: On June 18 the Phillies were 2½ games behind the NL East Division-leading Braves and the Nationals were fourth, four games below .500. Now Washington was in second (although 9½ games back of Atlanta) and Philadelphia was in fourth place. The Nationals’ magic number to clinch a wild-card slot was 4. The Phillies had not been mathematically eliminated from wild-card contention, but the odds were not in their favor.
Patrick Corbin (13-7, 3.10 ERA) took the mound for the Nationals. No scoring for the Phillies in the first although Bryce Harper did get a single. The Nationals crowd still booed him when he came to the plate and cheered each strike as if it were the top of the ninth. (The former Nationals star had signed with the Phillies in the offseason.)
Zach Eflin (9-12, 4.00 ERA) was pitching for the Phillies. After Trea Turner struck out, Adam Eaton crushed an upper-deck homer to right, putting the Nationals up 1-0, setting a new personal home-run record (15), and making one Nationals fan very happy.1 When Eaton returned to the dugout, the usual high-fiving and dancing ensued. After Anthony Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto worked the count full and walked. Howie Kendrick singled to right with Soto running on the pitch. Harper’s throw in was accurate and just in time for Andrew Knapp to tag out Soto at the plate.2
Nothing for the Phillies in the second. Yan Gomes put the Nationals up 2-0 with a solo homer well over the center-field wall. Gomes had been on a bit of a power surge in September: That was his fifth homer in September, after six in the five previous months.
The Phillies threatened in the third. Knapp singled, moved to second on Eflin’s sacrifice, and to third on Jean Segura’s groundout. But Corbin struck out Harper to end the threat. Turner deposited Eflin’s second pitch in the visitors’ bullpen. Eaton bounced a single into right. Eflin walked Rendon and Soto on five pitches each to load the bases with no outs. That triggered a mound visit from Phillies pitching coach Chris Young. Whatever he said may have helped, as Kendrick grounded into a 1-2-3 double play preventing any scoring. Asdrúbal Cabrera grounded out to first, holding the score at 3-0, Nationals.
In the top of the fourth, Corbin walked Scott Kingery (10 pitches) and César Hernández (seven pitches) but got two groundouts and a strikeout to keep them from advancing further. Eflin pitched a 1-2-3 bottom of the frame.
Compared with his 28-pitch top of the fourth, Corbin had an easy 1-2-3 top of the fifth on only 11 pitches. After Turner singled into center, Eaton dropped a bunt in front of the plate and beat Eflin’s throw to first by a half-step. Rendon singled, scoring Turner and advancing Eaton to third. Soto walked on four pitches to load the bases. This time the Nationals were able to capitalize on the situation: Although Kendrick popped out so the runners had to hold, Eaton was able to score on Cabrera’s groundout to first. Eaton slid in with his fingers just brushing the point of the plate. Home-plate umpire Mark Wegner signaled him safe – but just in case, Eaton jumped up and tagged the plate with his foot while evading Knapp’s second attempt at a tag. Robles popped out with the score 5-0, Nationals.
This was the 12th time Soto3 had been walked three times in a game, all before his 21st birthday (October 25, 2019). The previous record for a player before his 21st birthday was nine, held by Hall of Famer Mel Ott.4 Of those nine, Ott was walked four times in two games, and five times on October 5, 1929. The ball from Soto’s at-bat is in the author’s collection. (See photo below.)
Corbin had another tough inning in the sixth. He started by walking Harper on four pitches.5 Kingery bounced a double into left that twisted foul just after it crossed the third-base bag. Corbin was able to strike out Hoskins, but walked José Pirela. That triggered a visit from the Nationals pitching coach, Paul Menhart. Corbin almost got out of the inning unscathed when Hernández grounded to third. Rendon grabbed the ball and stepped on third for the force out, but his throw was just a little up the first-base line. The ball bounced off the end of Kendrick’s glove, so the play ended with Hernández on first and Howie sprawled in the dirt. Harper was able to score from third but the ball didn’t get far enough away for Pirela to score from second. Corbin got the third out with a strikeout of Adam Haseley, leaving the score 5-1, Nationals.
Gomes continued his power surge by doubling off the top of the out-of-town scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth, but two strikeouts and a fly out left him there. At least the Nationals fans had a chance to sing “Baby Shark” when Gerardo Parra pinch-hit.6
Fernando Rodney pitched an effective 1-2-3 top of the seventh in relief for the Nationals. For the second out, Soto ran in quite a distance from left to catch the ball as Rendon moved out. They didn’t collide, but Soto caught the ball almost at Rendon’s hip. After the catch, Rendon playfully grabbed the ball from Soto with a “Gimme that!” Austin Davis pitched the bottom of the frame. Soto finally made contact, but flied out to the warning track. The only baserunner was a Kendrick walk.
To the cheers of the crowd, Daniel Hudson struck out Harper to start the eighth. Kingery lined out and Rhys Hoskins flied out for a quick inning. Davis continued pitching the bottom of the eighth for the Phillies. (It was not unusual for him to pitch multiple innings in relief.) He started well by striking out Robles and Gomes. Ryan Zimmerman was called on to pinch-hit and singled. Then Davis seemed to lose the strike zone, walking Turner on five pitches and Eaton on four to load the bases. That triggered a pitching change to Edubray Ramos, who had no better results: He walked Rendon and Soto, bringing in two runs. He finally got the third out by striking out Kendrick with the score 7-1, Nationals.
Given the score, there was no need for Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. Instead, Javy Guerra pitched the top of the ninth. He did give up one run when Haseley singled and scored on Knapp’s double. Rendon made a great defensive play to end the game, running from third almost to second to snag Logan Morrison’s grounder, then spun to make a timely throw to first.
The win moved the Nationals closer to a wild-card berth, which they clinched the next day on their way to their World Series victory. The Phillies were eliminated from the postseason the next day, finishing fourth in the NL East.
The author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org and viewed the recorded game at MLB.com.
1 The Nationals had a promotion (“Dinger of the Day”) in which one fan picked a player. If that player homered, the fan won a prize package, often including signed memorabilia from the player. For this game the fan had picked Eaton.
2 That was Harper’s league-leading 13th outfield assist in 2019.
3 Soto finished the regular season with 108 walks, third in the NL. His walks contributed to his .401 on-base percentage, good enough for fifth in the NL. He also had nine walks in the postseason, including the only intentional walk given by the 2019 Houston Astros (Game Two of the World Series).
4 Nationals Twitter account: https://twitter.com/nationals/status/1175854273428623362 and newslocker.com/en-us/sport/washington-nationals/this-is-the-11th-3-walk-game-of-juan-sotos-career-the-previous-mlb-record-for-a-player-before-his-21st-birthday-was-9-held-by-hall-of-famer-mel-ott-no-other-player-in-history-had-done-it-more-than-4-times-childishbambino-onepursuitpictwittercomllc3gcyqfd-/.
5 That was Harper’s 99th (and final) walk in 2019. He finished fifth in the NL in 2019; it was the fourth time in his eight years in the major leagues that he’d finished in the top five in walks.
6 Tom Hunsicker, “Nats Fans Do the ‘Baby Shark’ before Gerardo Parra at-bat,” wusa9.com, July 24, 2019.