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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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Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is back for a second year and feeling optimistic for his Washington team. Spring training has begun in Florida and it has Baker thinking about how the Nats can create some excitement for local sports fans.

In an interview with American University’s WAMU radio station, Baker said D.C. wants to be a "city of champions.” Furthermore, he thinks it can be pulled off before the year ends.

"I came here to win a championship and you know I would love nothing more than to bring one to Washington. Washington, I didn’t know it before I got there, but it’s had a tough time getting out of the first round in a number of sports."

He projected the Nationals to bring home the next championship for the District, but he knows they have competition of late. 

"Washington Wizards are looking pretty good. I’m pulling for them first because their season ends before ours, so I’ve been really following them. The Capitals have a good thing going. I started watching the Redskins more this year.

"You know once it gets contagious in a city and you get a positive attitude throughout the city, then it transfers to the sports teams. So we want to be known as a city of champions, before the end of the year hopefully."

Baker has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teams, especially managing star players. He managed the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, a team he managed for four seasons.

He's never won a World Series, but has taken a team to Game 7. He also finished third for the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

So, what are Baker’s steps for the Nationals to get that ultimate prize? A simple formula, really.

"I think that we’ve got to stay healthy, number one. We’re trying to fill the holes that we need to fill, and we’ve got to play," he said. "You know last year we were very close, we were one hit away or one play away or one pitch away from going to the next round against the Cubs."

While he says he came to win Washington a championship, he's also enjoying his time in the city. 

"I love D.C. Before that, San Francisco was my favorite town; that’s my home. But I tell you, D.C. is definitely in the running," he said. "I thought San Francisco had the best seafood, but man, you guys have the best seafood I think in the world."

Thanks, Dusty!

The Nationals play their first spring training game against the New York mets on Saturday.

RELATED: NATIONALS REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

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Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

When it comes to sports, we sometimes forget that the athletes we look up to are just normal people. Normal people who have a lot to prove to millions of people on a weekly basis. Former Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel has discussed one of his human moments in an interview with 590 The Fan in St. Louis.

Ankiel admitted to drinking vodka during his plight as a pitcher. He referenced his first two starts of the 2001 season, in particular against the Arizona Diamondbacks where he allowed his anxiety to give in to alcohol to soothe him. In the previous postseason, he became the first pitcher since 1980 to throw five wild pitches in a single inning. 

It may have worked for a couple of games but Ankiel eventually realized it was only making matters worse.

Ankiel began playing in Majors at the age of 19, and has had a fluctuating career through six teams. All the while, he has kept a “never give up” mentality.

Why the sudden need to vent? Ankiel is getting up close and personal with his upcoming book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed my Life” which is co-written by sports writer Tim Brown. The book will be released on April 18.  

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