Oct 11, 2012, 11:06 PM EDT
At some point, as the at-bat dragged on and on and as he fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, Jayson Werth lost track and had to sneak a glance at the Nationals Park scoreboard to see just how many times Lance Lynn had wound up and delivered the ball to him in the bottom of the ninth.
The scoreboard read 12 total pitches for Lynn.
“I was like, is that right?” Werth said. “I had to really study the board to make sure that was correct. But I guess it didn’t last much longer.”
No, it certainly didn’t. Seconds later, Lynn delivered his 13th pitch of the pivotal at-bat in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Like nine of the previous 12, it was a fastball, this one registering 96 mph.
Unlike any of the others, it crossed the plate belt-high, right down the heart of the strike zone. And unlike any of the others, it wasn’t fouled off into the stands. Nor, however, did it land anywhere in the field of play.
No, this pitch landed in the back left corner of the left-field bullpen, not to mention the annals of Washington sports lore.
With one mighty swing of his bat, Werth saved the Nationals’ season, cemented his place in Nationals history and sent a throng of 44,392 into sheer pandemonium. After launching the home run that gave his team a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, Werth will never again have to justify his decision to sign a $126 million contract with a club that had never won anything before.
“This is what you play all season for,” the 32-year-old right fielder said. “This is why you work out all winter. This is why you start playing T-ball when you’re four. This is baseball, man. This is why you play.”
And play again the Nationals will. They’ll be right back on South Capitol Street at 8:37 p.m. Friday for a winner-take-all Game 5 of what has become a remarkable series between one young ballclub that posted the sport’s best regular-season record and a veteran-laden squad trying to retain its World Series crown.
And they’ll do it in front of another sellout crowd that experienced more dizzying highs and terrifying lows over 2 hours and 55 minutes Thursday — not to mention over the last five days — than three generations of Washington baseball fans ever hoped to realize.
“It was nervous. Exciting. All of the emotions that you can think of,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “It was one of those special games that I feel privileged to have been a part of.”
The euphoria that capped the night was in stark contrast to the nervous anticipation that filled the park when this elimination game began. Fans desperately needed something positive to cheer, whether from the pitching staff or (preferably) from a lineup that hadn’t yet scored in its home ballpark in the postseason.
Ross Detwiler set the tone by retiring six of the first seven batters he faced, cruising through his first two innings. Adam LaRoche then supplied the big blast everyone wanted.
The crowd let out a roar when LaRoche tagged Kyle Lohse’s 3-2 fastball down the right-field line to open the bottom of the second, only to sigh as it hooked foul. No worries, because seconds later he tagged another 3-2 fastball, this time leaving no doubt where it would land.
The ball cleared the fence in straightaway center field, a solo homer that gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead and at long last gave the sellout crowd reason to dial up the decibel meter.
“It was good to get on the board and get the lead,” manager Davey Johnson said.
The Nationals did, however, give the run right back in the top of the third, not so much because of Detwiler but some shaky defense. The left-hander walked No. 8 hitter/pest Pete Kozma to start the inning — an obvious no-no — but he would have gotten out of the inning had Ian Desmond not booted a chopper to short. That left runners on the corners and allowed Kozma to score on Carlos Beltran’s sacrifice fly to center (with Bryce Harper making an ill-advised, airmail throw to the plate).
The game now 1-1, both pitchers settled in. For Lohse — a veteran who went 16-3 this season — this wasn’t as big a deal, but for Detwiler — who just completed his first full big-league season — this was significant.
Start with the fact Detwiler had been hammered by the same Cardinals lineup 11 days ago at Busch Stadium. Throw in the dire situation for the Nationals. And then don’t forget the small fact he likely made the postseason rotation only because of Stephen Strasburg’s early-September shutdown.
With all that hovering over his head, Detwiler went out and did exactly what the Nationals needed. He pitched around that unearned run in the third and kept the Cardinals from scoring again before he departed following the sixth, showing few, if any, nerves along the way.
“You know, my nerves were worse in the ninth inning, before J-Dub’s at-bat,” he said. “It wasn’t too bad. I tried to look at it as another game. I felt like I really had something to prove, especially after the last start against them.”
With the game still knotted at 1 and with his middle relief corps having struggled in the series, Johnson turned to a surprising arm for the seventh inning: Jordan Zimmermann. The right-hander threw 63 pitches in Game 2 on Monday, but would have thrown his regular between-starts bullpen session today, so Johnson let him know he’d be available for this all-important game.
That proved quite an adept move by the 69-year-old skipper, because Zimmermann flat-out dominated the top of the seventh. He struck out Kozma on a 97-mph fastball, dialing his velocity up several notches from where it usually sits. He struck out Lohse on a 91-mph slider, way up from his usual velocity. Then he dialed it up to 97 again to get Jon Jay looking, eliciting the biggest roar of the crowd all day (up to that juncture).
“I knew I was only going to be out there for one inning, but I wasn’t trying to throw it harder,” Zimmermann said. “Adrenaline just took over.”
Clippard picked up right where Zimmermann left off, striking out three more batters in the top of the eighth and pumping his fist as he hopped off the mound. Drew Storen then completed the bullpen’s incredible trifecta, striking out three batters of his own in the top of the ninth to give the Nationals’ relief corps nine strikeouts in three brilliant innings of work.
“It was electric,” Johnson said. “They rose to the occasion.”
The game, of course, was still undecided. A hero still needed to step to the forefront and etch his place into this game, this series and this town’s sporting history.
That hero proved to be the highest-paid player on the roster, who in his biggest moment to date with this franchise was worth every cent the Nationals paid him and ensured this magical baseball season will extend for at least one more day.
“Before the game, [reliever] Michael Gonzalez asked me how I felt,” Werth said. “I said: ‘I feel like I want to play tomorrow.’ And we get that chance.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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