WASHINGTON — Bottom of the ninth and Washington needed a hero. He came in the form of heavily bearded slugger Jayson Werth.
With most of the third-largest crowd (44,392) in Nationals’ history on its collective feet, festooned in team red, waving flags, living and dying on every pitch, Werth fought off 13 pitches from St. Louis Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn before sending the 14th over the left field wall for a walk-off 2-1 win.
One swing forced a deciding Game 5 tonight in D.C., and erased the dismay of Wednesday’s first playoff game in the capital in 79 years.
“That’s the way that game should have ended, Jayson Werth hitting a home run,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He has not hit many this year. It was unbelievable.”
The veteran Washington manager was right. Werth had only five home runs in 303 at-bats this season but this one allowed the Nationals to live another day in the club’s first postseason experience.
Maybe Werth was saving his best for last. With that blow of a Lynn fastball, the Washington right-fielder etched his name in the city’s sports folklore. It was Werth’s 14th postseason home run, tied for ninth-most, all-time, and only one behind the legendary Babe Ruth.
Perhaps Werth was inspired by watching the Yankees’ Raul Ibanez late Wednesday night. Ibanez, pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez, sent the game into extra innings with a ninth-inning home run, then hit the winning walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th in New York’s series with Baltimore.
The Nationals’ lead-off hitter said he was sitting at home watching the game and Ibanez’s performance.
“I probably texted him 20 times last night congratulating him, and that was awesome,” Werth said during his post-game press conference, Nats’ fans in the background chanting his name. “You know, here we are a day later and I got an opportunity and came through.”
Forget the madness going on around Werth in the final inning; he said he didn’t notice. How couldn’t he? The place was bedlam as Johnson, the skipper of the Good Ship D.C., obviously pulled out all stops to keep his club on life support.
Johnson threw everything he had at the Cardinals, including regular starter Jordan Zimmerman for an inning of relief. A trio of Nationals’ relievers, including Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen mowed down the last nine St. Louis batters, striking out eight of the last 11.
What had haunted the Nationals in the last two losses to the reigning World Series champions — pitchers falling behind early and untimely hits — vanished into the darkness of the Washington night. The Nats’ hurlers, led by six solid innings by starter Ross Detwiler, handcuffed the St. Louis order, scattering three hits.
Johnson’s batting lineup only had three hits as well but this time, they counted. Chatter in the clubhouse after Wednesday’s game revolved around not getting the big hit when it counted. In Thursday’s Cheat-the-Reaper performance, two of those hits went out of the park: Adam LaRoche’s solo blast in the second, and Werth’s dreamy heroics in 11th hour.
Johnson recalled how Werth had put together a similar at-bat earlier in the season against the Marlins, fighting off pitches to stay alive, then punching one over the fence.
“He can force a pitcher to throw a lot of pitches and he did that tonight,” Johnson said. “He did that at Miami, coming back after a rain delay.”
That previous at-bat Johnson referred to was under much different circumstances. It was a long rain delay, regular season, lots of the fans leaving the stadium prior to the restart. That game-tying shot was nothing like the electric playoff atmosphere Thursday evening.
With all the madness of October enveloping this small corner of the District, Werth might as well have been on a deserted island.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” said Werth, who came to the Nationals from the Phillies several years ago. “It was pretty quiet to me. You know, I had an at-bat like that in 2010 off Drew [Storen]. I hit a home run. He was one of the first people to come grab me tonight. He told me that was familiar. I think he said he knew it was going to happen, so it was a special moment for sure.”
Storen should have let the rest of the crowd in on his intuition so as to spare all the chewed up fingernails.
Johnson has been around the block a time or two but kept marveling at the crowd, at Werth’s big moment and the way his pitching staff delivered.
“[Zimmerman] came in and I mean he was hyped,” Johnson said. “That’s the hardest I’ve seen him throw all year. I mean, his slider was like 91.
“I was hoping, praying that [the big hit] would happen in the ninth inning because I didn’t want to go to my bullpen after the crew I had used because they were the most rested guys,” Johnson exhaled in a relief that would have huffed and puffed the sails of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. “I don’t get excited too much, but I was excited tonight.”
Oh, and yeah, Werth did get a response from Ibanez.
“I got quite a few back actually,” Werth said. “I think when I checked my phone on the way in here today [Ibanez] sent mike like four or five [return texts].”
Good thing Ibanez sent ‘em early because Werth’s phone has probably blown up since.
The stage is set for more drama tonight and Werth said the ball is now in Washington’s court. Fear the beard.