These Nats are Werth It

For what it was Werth, the thirteenth was his and the Nats’ lucky pitch . . .

Jayson Werth went home Wednesday night to flip on the Orioles-Yankees American League division series game and got a powerful enough message from a former Philadelphia Phillies teammate.

“I got a little something last night,” he huffed happily Thursday afternoon. “Watching my boy Raul Ibanez do it, he gave me a little something today.”

Ibanez, of course, blasted a game-tying bomb in the bottom of the ninth and a game-winning bomb in the bottom of the twelfth. Nowhere near twenty-four hours later, Werth—the high-priced Nat who’s struggled to live up to his mammoth deal for most of his time since—showed just what Ibanez gave him.

Incentive.

Werth locked down the Nats’ entry into a fifth National League division series with a leadoff, walkoff homer that seemed the only proper way to end an epic duel with St. Louis reliever Lance Lynn.

Usually a starter but out of the pen for the postseason, Lynn actually had Werth in the 0-2 hole to open the duel. Two balls later, Werth began fouling off pitches almost as though he were taking a round of extra aerobics, six consecutive fouls before he looked at ball three. Then, after yet another foul off, Werth unloaded on Lynn’s fastball and drove it just below the seats, ricocheting off the top back wall of the Cardinals’ bullpen.

Lynn was off the mound and the field before Werth had even rounded second, practically. He didn’t have to watch to know.

It was nothing less than just reward for the Nats for ironing up, shoving aside both their own discontent and that of too many observers over the missing man (you know who) on the postseason staff and putting on a performance that could have been called four or even  five equaling one.

Starter Ross Detwiler’s only real blemish Thursday afternoon was Carlos Beltran’s third-inning, game-tying sacrifice fly, which might have been the mere second out with no scoreboard damage, except that Ian Desmond didn’t handle Jon Jay’s grounder properly enough and allowed rookie St. Louis shortstop Pete Kozma to reach third. It still left Detwiler in fine company; he’s only the fourth Washington pitcher to surrender no earned runs in a postseason start since Earl Whitehill, Walter Johnson, and Curley Ogden.

Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals’ starter, likewise would have been able to call his day’s work unblemished—if it hadn’t been for Adam LaRoche opening the Washington second. The Nats’ first baseman, in a kind of telegraph to Werth’s ninth-inning surrealism, fouled off three straight full count services before driving the fourth over the center field fence.

Until Werth’s exclamation point, the Cardinals and the Nats pitched up almost equal. Nothing the Cardinals did was quite up to the Nats’ bullpen par in the last three innings, but by the time Lynn started his showdown with Werth, the Cardinals could account for a mere three hits and the Nats, a measly two.

Detwiler also had to squirm his way out of sixth-inning trouble by putting David Freese with Allen Craig (single) aboard and two out before getting Daniel Descalso to ground out to second. By which time manager Davey Johnson was ready to let his bulls charge.

The Cardinals weren’t the only ones willing to move a starter to the bullpen. Johnson brought in Jordan Zimmermann, who’d been slapped around in a four-run second in Game Two. Zimmermann would yield after an inning to Tyler Clippard, who’d also yield after an inning, to Drew Storne.

Except for pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter (for St. Louis reliever Mitchell Boggs) popping out to shortstop for the side in the Cardinal ninth—and the Nats needed a twist and shout grab from Desmond ambling back, catching it just as he landed on his sliding stomach—the Washington relief trio got eight straight outs on punchouts, interrupted only by Clippard’s two-out walk to Craig in the eighth and Storen’s two-out walk to Kozma in the ninth.

It put the Nats into the books as only the third postseason team—with the 1996 Cleveland Indians (Game Four, division series) and the 2005 Los Angeles Angels (Game Six, American League Championship Series)—to bag eight straight outs that way. Nationals Park graduated from mere loud crowd to nuclear test chamber as the punchouts kept punching.

Then Werth wrestled Lynn and the nuclear test chamber exploded.

No, we’re not going to say the Nats don’t need Stephen Strasburg. We’re only going to repeat—if and when need be, and it needs to be for his and their future, they can manage without him. So it takes five other arms to equal one Strasburg. A lot of clubs don’t have ten other arms to equal two lesser aces.

“I don’t know if you weren’t sure [about our pitching],” Werth couldn’t resist crowing, “but I was sure.”

So was Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, explaining why he went to Lynn for the ninth instead of bringing out his closer, Jason Motte: He didn’t want to use up his closer in a tie game on the road that seemed likely to go to extra innings, and have to rely on an unaccustomed or even a lesser arm to try for the save if the Cardinals might go ahead.

“If we were at home,” Matheny told reporters, “it would have been a very easy decision to bring in Motte. Had a lot of confidence in Lance. He came in throwing the ball well. Werth just put together a very good at-bat.”

It was easy for Matheny or any Cardinal to say even though Werth had now put them on the threshold of an elimination game. They’ve been there before in the past two years. Their record in that span’s elimination games? 5-0.

These Nats, whose postseason experience amounts to Werth, pitcher Edwin Jackson, and manager Johnson, didn’t exactly have all that proud a jacket thus far: they had only three hits in twenty-four at-bats with men in scoring position, thirty men orphaned on the bases, and seven runs by the end of Game Three.

They didn’t need men in scoring position to win Game Four. But they may not have that kind of luxury Friday night. And Gio Gonzalez, the laughing extrovert who gets the ball to start Game Five for the Nats, can’t afford to approach things luxuriantly against Adam Wainwright.

That’s for Friday. For right now, the Nats are proving they can hang with the big boys the way they did on the regular season. The bearded scruff who used to menace them out of Philadelphia, and five pitchers for the price of one Strasburg, went a long enough way securing that evidence on Thursday.

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