The game was well in hand. The Nationals held a 5-2 lead over the Mets with two outs in the ninth, nobody on base, and all Rafael Soriano had to do was retire one more batter before giving up three runs.
And then Soriano walked pinch-hitter Juan Lagares on four pitches. And then he walked Eric Young Jr. on seven pitches, bringing the tying run to the plate. And then Daniel Murphy launched a ball deep to right field, forcing Jayson Werth to backtrack to the fence and leap with glove extended, leaving a crowd of 34,413 to suffer one massive, collective heart attack all at once.
Perhaps the only soul in the ballpark who remained calm and collected — at least outwardly — was the man who hauled in Murphy’s drive, robbing a potential game-tying homer, securing the Nationals’ ninth consecutive win over the Mets and doing it all without showing any emotion whatsoever. Werth simply caught the ball, leaned up against the wall for a moment, then trotted toward the infield to join his teammates following a nerve-wracking victory.
And what was the veteran right fielder thinking in that moment?
“I probably should’ve untucked my shirt,” he said, straight-faced.
Werth may not have pulled out his jersey, but Soriano sure did after getting bailed out by his teammate. The Nationals’ closer, who six nights earlier blew his first save of the season, came within inches of blowing his second, this time in particularly gaudy style.
Handed a 5-2 lead that had remained intact since the fifth inning, Soriano got two quick outs to start the ninth, though the first — a drive to the warning track in center by Anthony Recker — was perhaps a sign of trouble to come. If not that, the Mets fan who ran onto the field shortly after and made it all the way around the bases before getting body-slammed by a security guard certainly left a sense of unease in the entire ballpark.
Still, all Soriano needed to do was retire Lagares, producer of one home run in 107 plate appearances this season, to end this game. Yet he walked him on four pitches to jump-start the rally. Then he walked Young, producer of three homers in his last 742 plate appearances.
“Those were close pitches,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “But those guys, they’re smart hitters. They’re looking for something not on the corners. They’re looking for just one pitch in the strike zone. But it happens.”
With Murphy now at the plate, Soriano did have to worry about grooving one pitch over the plate. Which he wound up doing, firing a first-pitch fastball on the inner-half of the strike zone, belt-high.
“He’s our closer,” manager Matt Williams said. “We’re confident he’ll get the next guy out, but Murph’s been one of their hottest hitters as of late. And he’s one of their best hitters overall. So it’s not comfortable when he’s at the plate with the chance to tie the game. But it’s a game of inches sometimes. He didn’t quite get enough of it.”
As soon as Murphy made contact, it was clear the ball at least had a chance to leave the park.
“I thought I had a chance,” the Mets second baseman said. “My heart of hearts, I knew it was going to be close. He crowded me just a little bit, got it in on me just a hair. I knew it was going to be tight.”
Werth, though, was fairly confident it wasn’t hit quite well enough, especially given the light rain that had begun to fall minutes earlier.
“When it was hit, I figured it was right about where it was at,” he said. “I think the rain might have knocked it down a little bit, gave me a better chance. It was close. I know he hit it good. Recker hit that ball good, too, to start off the inning. I think the mist might have helped us out a little bit.”
Werth hasn’t always looked smooth in right field this season, but he was in complete control of this play. He calmly backtracked and perfectly sensed his position on the warning track and against the fence before timing his jump.
“It’s just one of those things,” he said. “I don’t know if you learn it, or you practice it or you’re just born with it. I don’t know.”
As the Nationals bullpen erupted in celebration and Soriano untucked his jersey in the center of the diamond, Werth just casually strolled in from right field, ball in glove. His catch had just moved his team to within a half-game of first place in the NL East, but he wasn’t about to reveal any emotions. That’s just not his style.
He simply was pleased to have helped the Nationals stave off the kind of furious rally they’ve inflicted on other teams this season.
“You guys have seen it with us all year,” he said. “We’ve been putting it on bullpens and setup men and closers. The shoe was on the other foot a little bit. But we still got the win, and that’s the important thing.”