WASHINGTON D.C. -- The first pitch, from Lance Lynn? Jayson Werth didn't like it. It was 95 miles an hour, and it crossed the plate at the very bottom of the strike zone. It was the type of pitch that led Lynn's Cardinals teammates to incredulously say, again and again after he had pitched in relief of injured starter Jaime Garcia in Game 2 of this NLDS, "We've got an 18-game winner in our bullpen." Werth let the pitch sail by, for strike one.
Mike Rizzo, the Nationals G.M., has been under fire for a month now, ever since he acted on his decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, his team's ace, for the sake of Strasburg's and his club's future well-being. That was not, however, the first furiously scrutinized decision of Rizzo's career in Washington, during which he has guided his club from perennial bottom-feeders to Thursday night's game, which, had the Nationals lost it, would have been the last of their first-ever playoff appearance. The first was his decision in December 2010, to sign Werth, the hirsute 33-year-old former Phillie, to a seven-year, $126 million free agent contract. Werth had some credible years in Philadelphia. He had even come in eighth in the National League MVP voting. But he was not, people cried, worth anything close to $126 million.
Lynn's second pitch was just a little slower -- 94 -- and just a little higher. Werth didn't like this one, either. Strike two.
Werth's first two regular seasons in Washington were disappointing. Yes, he became a leader, the unflappable veteran in a clubhouse marked by its callowness. But in 2010, he hit .232, with 20 home runs and 58 RBI's, and had an underwhelming OPS of .718. He was better in 2012 -- he hit .300 -- but his season was cleaved in half by a broken wrist he suffered in May, allowing him to play 81 games. Even when he came back, he didn't seem to have his old power. The player who had hit 36 home runs in 2009 was able to muster just five. And, prior to this at-bat, he hadn't done must in the first three games of the NLDS, two of which were disheartening losses. He had just three hits in 15 at-bats, all of them singles.
Now, with the game tied at 1-1 and no outs in the bottom of the ninth, with the Nationals' season in the balance, Werth had fallen behind Lynn by the count of 0-2. He had batted .234 this season after facing an 0-2 count, and had not hit a home run. In his first year in Washington, he had hit .173 following such situations. "Really was the biggest at-bat of the year for this franchise, in this franchise's history, and Jayson happened to be at the plate," Mike Rizzo would say. "This is why we wanted him here, why we wanted him on the club."
Lynn's third pitch was designed to send Werth trotting back to the dugout, the owner of an 0-for-4 evening. It was a nasty curveball, one that tumbled way outside, one that Werth was supposed to try to hit, only to find himself swinging through air. But Werth was looking for it, and held up. Ball one. Now the battle had begun.
The Nationals had gotten this far in Game 4, in large measure, because of the brave effort of their starting pitcher, who wasn't supposed to appear in a playoff game unless it was out of the bullpen. Ross Detwiler is 26 years old, and if he was not a failed prospect before this season, then he was at least a disappointing one. In 2012, though, Detwiler refused to release his grip on his job as the Nationals' fifth starter -- he finished 10-8, with a 3.40 ERA -- and he became their fourth starter, a playoff starter, only after Strasburg was no longer allowed to pitch.
Detwiler had watched as in Games 2 and 3 the Cardinals systematically pummeled the veterans ahead of him, Jordan Zimmermann and then Edwin Jackson, who refused to throw St. Louis much other than fastballs, until it was too late. He had heard his manager, Davey Johnson, lament his predecessors' timidity and predictability. "Sandy Koufax, he could pitch with his fastball, but he had a great curveball and fastball and pitched in and out," Johnson had said. "You have to use all your weapons when you're facing a good club. And when you get to this time of the year, all the clubs are good." So, when it was Detwiler's turn on Thursday, he focused on keeping the Cardinals' batters off-balance from the beginning, throwing them 33 fastballs, yes, but also 48 sinkers, and 14 sliders, and even three changeups. The Cardinals, suddenly, were befuddled. "Just try to keep the game close, try to keep the game tied and give us a chance," Detwiler would say of his plan. He allowed a single run, on three hits and three walks, through six innings. The emboldened bullpen -- Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen -- followed Detwiler's lead. The trio faced eleven Cardinals in the seventh through the ninth innings. They struck out eight of them.
Now, Werth knew, his task was clear: to stay alive as long as he could, until Lynn made a mistake. Lynn's fourth pitch was a 96-mile-an-hour fastball, that just missed the zone, high and away. Werth laid off. The count was two and two. Then the reliever, the 18-game winner, started reaching back, trying to blow Werth away, but Werth would not yield. Lynn threw three 97-mile-a-hour fastballs in a row, and then another at 96. Werth fouled off all of them. With his ninth pitch, Lynn, not yet frustrated but getting there, tried another curve. Werth fouled that one off too. Then, a fastball again, another one at 96. Foul. On his eleventh delivery to Werth, Lynn tried a curve again, and he just missed, down and away. The count was full, and Werth was sure, now, that he would have a chance to win the game, and he would get that chance against Lynn's fastball.
"That 2-2 hook," Werth would say, "that was pretty close. After that, I was on the heater." He thought of what his good friend and former Phillies teammate, Raul Ibanez, had done against a couple of fastballs the previous night, as a member of the Yankees. Werth had stayed up late, watching Ibanez do it. In the bottom of the ninth, Ibanez had pulled a heater from the Orioles Jim Johnson over the rightfield wall in Yankee Stadium, to tie the game at two. In the bottom of the twelfth, Ibanez had again gotten a fastball -- this one of the cut variety, from Brian Matusz -- and again pulled it over the wall, for the game-winner. "I probably texted him 20 times last night congratulating him," Werth would reveal. "That was awesome." Ryan Zimmerman, Werth's teammate and a fellow resident of the back reaches of the Nationals' clubhouse, which is where the veteran hitters dwell, couldn't help but speculate that Werth, after his mildly sour first two years in Washington, wanted to experience a feeling like Ibanez's for himself. "None of us likes it when we don't do well," Zimmerman said. "As professional athletes, we want to be the best player we can be. When we're not that way, it doesn't eat up anyone more than the individual. Sometimes it might not seem like that, and some people think, 'Oh, they'll get their money anyway,' but deep inside it really gets to us. I think it gets to him, even though he does such a good job in here or not letting that affect the way he goes about his business."
The twelfth pitch Werth drew from Lance Lynn was, as Werth expected, a fastball. It was in the strike zone, but in its upper right quadrant, a difficult location if you're looking to hit a ball hard. He fouled away Lynn's offering, for the seventh time in the at bat.
If Werth, or one of the hitters to follow him, did not come through, then it would very possibly equate with the off-season's beginning. If they did, then the Nationals -- seemingly dead after dropping a pair of games in which they were outscored 20-4 -- would again have the series' upper hand. They would play its deciding Game 5 at home, and they would send to the mound Gio Gonzalez, their ace in the absence of Strasburg -- and, possibly, their ace even in Strasburg's presence. Gonzalez was said to have struggled in Game 1, when he walked seven Cardinals, but still, in his first ever playoff start, he lasted five innings and allowed just one hit and two runs, and the Nationals won. If that is as bad as it gets for Gonzalez, the prospect of another playoff start for him was a promising one, indeed. But his team had to get him one.
On Lynn's 13th delivery, it finally came, the pitch Werth had been looking for all along. It was a fastball, as he had anticipated, and it was thrown at 96-miles-per-hour, but unlike the preceding twelve pitches he'd seen, it was not up, and it was not down, and it was not in, and it was not out. If you were to plot out the geometric center of the strike zone, that was more or less where it was. Werth uncoiled, and he made contact for the eighth time in his at-bat, but it was immediately clear that this contact was different. The ball took off, on a line, for left centerfield, and it kept rising, as the Nationals' fans -- who stood throughout the at-bat, but who were momentarily lulled but its length ("I didn't hear a thing," Werth said) -- took a moment to realize what was happening, and what was about to happen. The ball cleared the outfield wall, and caromed off the back of the visitors' bullpen.
Werth rounded first, and pointed to the sky with his right hand. Fireworks exploded. As he approached home plate, he threw his helmet up in the air, and then leapt into a throng of his teammates, who had gathered around home plate, bouncing up and down as one. Werth, who had quietly endured two years of maligning that began the moment he put his pen to Rizzo's contract, had tied the series, with one game to go, and had given the city of Washington the first playoff win on its soil in nearly eight decades.
"Set aside what the contract was, what the contract was worth, and this is the player we wanted in this town, for this exact reason," Rizzo said, minutes later. "Playoff competition, he steps up to the forefront, and leads by example, and got it done for us."
"I think that was really good for him," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He might not tell you. But it was."