WASHINGTON — Trent Grisham's eyes were still red, his cheeks stained by tears, as a group of Milwaukee Brewers teammates gathered near his locker in the visitors' clubhouse at Nationals Park to offer hugs and words of encouragement.
Everything was going according to plan for manager Craig Counsell and the Brewers — get a lead, mix and match with the bullpen — until, suddenly, it wasn't. Milwaukee was undone by wildness from closer Josh Hader and an error by Grisham in right field that allowed the go-ahead run to score with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning.
It added up to a gut-punch of a 4-3, season-ending loss to the Washington Nationals in the NL wild-card game Tuesday night.
"It's going to sting. It's going to sting for a long time. Essentially gifting the Nationals a Divisional (Series) berth," Grisham said. "It's going to hurt. I expect it to hurt."
He is a 22-year-old rookie who debuted Aug. 1 and played in only 51 major league games this season, taking over in right primarily after 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich went down for the year after fracturing his right kneecap on Sept. 10.
"It's going to be magnified because of the big stage, but he's a huge reason that we're even playing in this game. He has a lot to be proud of in his first taste of the big leagues," Yelich said. "I feel for him. If you play baseball long enough, you're going to be in these situations. You're going to come up short sometimes. It's part of being a professional athlete. He'll be just fine."
Even without Yelich, Milwaukee managed to surge into the playoffs, winning 18 of 20 games during one stretch and relying on a strong bullpen.
That formula appeared set to work again Tuesday.
"If you could have told me we'd hand the ball with six outs to go (to) Josh," Counsell said, "that would have fit our script really, really well. It just didn't play."
Milwaukee went to the bottom of the eighth leading 3-1, thanks to homers by Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames off Washington ace Max Scherzer. Starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff tossed four innings, Brent Suter threw one and Drew Pomeranz two.
Then it was time for Hader, a hard-throwing All-Star lefty who saved 37 games this year.
He loaded the bases with two outs, allowing a broken-bat bloop single, hitting one batter with a pitch, and walking another.
The Brewers challenged the ruling that Hader's pitch hit Michael A. Taylor, but it stood up, according to Major League Baseball, because there wasn't "clear and convincing evidence to overturn the call."
Said Hader: "Definitely looked like it got the bat, but it also got his hand."
The walk to Anthony Rendon loaded the bases and brought Juan Soto to the plate.
Soto, the Nationals' 20-year-old cleanup hitter, then smacked a 96 mph fastball into right. Two runs scored easily on the play — and that would have been it had Grisham fielded the ball cleanly. But he missed it, letting it skip under his glove and past him.
That miscue let the go-ahead run score.
"Came in a little off balance," Grisham said. "Kind of took a little funky hop on me."
What was Soto thinking as he faced Hader?
"Just get a base hit up the middle," he said, "and try to help to tie the game."
"Right guy, right spot," winning pitcher Stephen Strasburg said about Soto.
Eventually, Soto was caught in a rundown to end the inning, but that didn't matter: He had turned a 3-1 deficit into a lead, and so he clapped his hands, then pounded his chest and high-fived third base coach Bob Henley, before shouting "Let's go!" and its Spanish equivalent, "Vamonos!"
"The inning was an ugly inning," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "Crazy things happen."
Daniel Hudson pitched the ninth for the save, getting Ben Gamel to fly out to the warning track in center with a man on to end it, and a team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series a year ago was done.
Stephen Strasburg replaced Scherzer in the sixth and threw three scoreless innings to earn the win in the first relief appearance of his major league career, regular season or playoffs.
"Hats off for us to for continuing to fight, because we know if we could keep it close we could have a chance at the end," said Trea Turner, who got Washington within 3-1 with a solo shot off Brandon Woodruff in the third.
Like so many of their teammates, Hader tried to let Grisham off the hook.
"It's not anything on him," Hader said. "It comes down to me making my pitches."
The remarkable win fit the Nationals' remarkable season, which saw them go from 12 games under .500 in May to playoff participant, demonstrating never-give-up fortitude when things looked bleak.
"We started off horrible, as we all know, and we vowed that we wouldn't quit," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said, talking about the year as a whole but sounding like he could have meant this particular evening. "I told the boys, 'I promise you, stay with it, don't quit, this will turn around.' And it did. And here we are today."
The Nationals carry a nine-game winning streak into their best-of-five NL Division Series against the league-best Dodgers.
Game 1 is Thursday in Los Angeles, and some in the sellout crowd of 42,993 chanted "Beat LA! Beat LA!" as members of the Nationals began their celebration on the infield with family members.
That included Soto's father leaping onto his back and tackling him amid the excitement.
The Nationals, who moved to Washington from Montreal before the 2005 season, had been 0-3 in winner-take-all postseason games — all NLDS Game 5 losses at home, by a grand total of four runs. Indeed, eight of their past nine playoff losses had been by one run apiece.
This time, it went the other way.
"We've been here a bunch of times. Never kind of broke through," said Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' first draft pick back in 2005, so someone who has been through all the disappointment. "Finally caught a break tonight."
Ryan Braun (calf) and Lorenzo Cain (ankle) were in the starting lineup despite late-season injuries. They came into Tuesday a combined 0 for 29 with 12 Ks against Scherzer and went 0 for 4 while he was in the game.
AP freelancer Bobby Bancroft contributed.