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Nats live to see another day

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Nats live to see another day

Updated at 10:10 p.m.

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."

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Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Nats weight home field advantage against staying healthy as playoffs near

Though they’re still fighting for home field advantage in next week’s division series, the Nationals understand they’re in a strange part of their season.  

Sure, playoff seeding is plenty important. These last regular season games count, et cetera et cetera. But Washington already clinched the NL East title, and already knows its playoff opponent is going to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. So it’s not a surprise that players are willing to admit how difficult it can be to keep their foot on the gas pedal these days.

“Once you win the division, there’s that exhale, that sigh of relief,” said Jayson Werth after Friday night’s 7-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.”..You kind of let off the throttle a little bit.”

And when a team takes that approach, health becomes the top priority. It’s a mindset that was on full display Friday night when Werth was removed from the game in the seventh inning as a precaution due to back and side tightness.

 “We can't afford to lose anybody else,” manager Dusty Baker said. “So we decided that, it was wet, on the chilly side, and I decided I couldn't take a chance on him being injured too.”

Werth said that team trainers ruled out a strain or a pull, and that he’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the lineup on Saturday afternoon.  

Still, any injury the Nats suffer this time of the year feels magnified, especially given the last week: Bryce Harper jammed his left thumb, Wilson Ramos tore his ACL and Daniel Murphy was shut down until the playoffs with a glute strain. Not to mention that Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the club’s entire October run.

“The biggest thing is right now is to get everybody healthy for the postseason,” Stephen Drew said. “I think that's key. We got some guys out and hopefully we'll be ready for the playoffs.”

So while every team says it’d like to head into the postseason firing on all cylinders, the Nats’ case shows that it’s not always realistic. Bottling up momentum and carrying into the biggest games of the year is the ideal, of course. But sometimes heading into the tournament with all your horses in tact works too — seeding be damned.

“Obviously home field advantage is important to us, and we want that,” Werth said. “But at the same time, we also feel like we’ve done our job a little bit. So there’s a balance there.....you don’t want to do something where you can put yourself in jeopardy, where you can really get hurt.”

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Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Cole struggles early, bullpen cracks late as Nats fall to Marlins

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-4 loss over the Miami Marlins on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: If the Nationals want to sew up home field advantage in their first playoff series, they still have more work to do — and only have two more games to do it.

The Nats were unable to help their cause Friday night, falling to the Marlins 7-4 in a rain-soaked affair that began nearly two hours after its scheduled start time.  

While the offense couldn’t come through late, it was starter A.J. Cole that put the Nats in a bind in this one. The 24-year-old rookie right hander forcing Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen early after yielding four runs (two earned) on six hits in just three innings of work.

But all it took was one inning for the Nats to even things up. Anthony Rendon and Stephen Drew opened the fourth with back-to-back solo home runs, and RBI hits by Jose Lobaton and Trea Turner make it 4-4 heading into the fifth.

The bullpen subsequently cracked, however, yielding a runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth innings to give the Marlins a 7-4 edge. The offense couldn’t mount a late rally, and that was all she wrote.

What it means: The magic number for home field advantage in the NLDS remains at two. As of this post, the Dodgers have yet to complete their game against the Giants, so there’s still a chance it could fall to one by Saturday morning.

Rendon reaches homer milestone: With his fourth-inning solo shot, Rendon became the latest Nats hitter join the 20 home run club. In fact, the Nats tied the 1965 and 2003 Braves as the only National League clubs with six players with 20-plus long balls in a season. (Interestingly enough, the Cardinals mathed that feat the Nats later in night after a Matt Holliday home run.)

But back to Rendon: For all the talk that the Nats offense sans Wilson Ramos will suffer, remember that Rendon has been one of the team’s best hitters since the All-Star break. Since then, he’s notched 11 homers, 20 doubles and 51 RBI. In other words, he’s fully returned to his ‘Tony Two-Bags’ form of 2014.

More accolades for Turner: D.C.’s favorite rookie had another one of his patented performances Friday night, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single, a triple and two stolen bases. He became the fourth player in MLB history to notch 10 home runs and 30 steals in less than 100 games, joining Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonds and current Nats first base coach Davey Lopes. Since the break, he leads the team in both extra-base hits and steals. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Harper struggles: In his first game back since injuring his left thumb, Bryce Harper looked looked very much like a hitter trying to regain his timing at the plate. In four at-bats, he struck out four times — three of them swinging. It’s just one game, of course, but he and the Nats are quickly running out of time to rev up for October.

Up next: The Nats will continue their quest to gain home field advantage in the middle game of this three-game set. Washington will send Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.86 ERA) to the hill to oppose Marlins lefty Wei-Yin Chen (5-4, 5.02 ERA).