A Transformative Moment in Washington Baseball
In every life there are those moments when your life takes a sudden turn, when you are standing still in one place and then events sweep you away to a very different place. Your life is changed, moved from one platform onto another from which you take off in a totally different direction. Call them rites of passage or transformative moments, but they are those points in your life that you remember clearly and distinctly.
The Washington Nationals and their fans had one of those moments collectively last night playing the St. Louis Cardinals with their backs to the wall, on the verge of elimination from their first playoff run before it had even begun. The noise about Stephen Strasburg was ramping up from a soft murmur to an ugly roar.
But there was another roar as well. The Washington Nationals fans filled the stadium for the second night in a row. 45,000 strong, they were even more determined than the prior night as they waved red rally rags made in China. There had never been such a ruckus made at a Nationals game. The fans stood on their feet for the final three innings of the game and roared as their bullpen posted seven strikeouts over the course of the final three innings.
And that is when Jayson Werth came to bat last night in the bottom of the ninth inning at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. The Nationals were a team searching for validation but it appeared beyond reach. They had beaten the Cardinals in one game, but lost badly in the next two. The score was tied 1-1 after Ross Detwiler had pitched a fine, fine game, holding the Cardinals to a single run scored in the second inning. But Kyle Lohse had been better allowing only two hits over seven innings. But one of the hits had been an Adam LaRoche solo home run also in the second inning.
Davey Johnson brought Jordan Zimmermann into the game to pitch the seventh. He threw 97 mph fastballs past all three batters he faced with un-matched intensity. Three batters, three strikeouts and hardly a loud foul. And the crowd responded to J-Zim’s grim determination with a noise that grew as the drama of the game hit new levels.
Both bullpens had held the 1-1 score. Tyler Clippard struck out two of the three batters he faced in the eighth. Drew Storen pitched a shaky top of the ninth but he held. Lance Lynn was on to pitch for the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth inning. The batting order flipped and Werth led off the inning.
Werth bats lead-off regularly now for Washington. His power seems to have dissipated since his return from wrist surgery. After joining the regular lineup in early August, he has only two home runs in slightly more than 200 at bats. He hit .300 for the season with an on-base percentage of .387–perfect for his new role hitting at the top of the lineup.
Werth’s other distinction is his ability to hit with two strikes. With two strikes, he has hit .286 this season, one of the best marks in the major leagues.
So there was promise to the situation. When Werth got two strikes there were no worries. Bryce Harper was on deck and Ryan Zimmerman behind him. The real power was still to come. But Werth worked the count full. With a 3-2 count, Werth is hitting .357. So the balance of power swung back in his favor. But he could not get good wood on anything. He fouled pitch after pitch off.
Lance Lynn was throwing 97 mph and bending nasty breaking balls down in the strike zone that Werth managed to barely foul away several times. The at bat ran to twelve pitches and still Werth was standing there with his wide open stance waving the bat back and forth. He had seen everything that Lynn had to offer. So when Lynn challenged him on the thirteenth pitch of the at bat with another fast ball, Werth suddenly was the hitter that used to destroy Washington as a Philadelphia Philly.
He hit a line drive that took off with authority and the crowd that had been standing for three innings, waving red rally rags almost without stop, suddenly were screaming with anticipation as the ball shot toward the left center field wall and then landed past it.
There have been exultant walk-off moments in Washington baseball history since the return of the game in 2005. The most memorable may still be Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run to win the first game ever played at the new Nationals Park in 2008. And there may be others yet to come that will achieve their own fame. But Jayson Werth’s home run to win the fourth game of the 2012 playoffs by a 2-1 score will be remembered for quite a while.
Fans high-fived and hugged total strangers that they have only gotten to know since the first playoff game began. They smiled and laughed on the way out of the stadium and in bars half a mile away the crowd filled the joint still wearing their red swag, still grinning and laughing with other fans they met along the way or suddenly seemed to know once they got to whatever watering hole they landed in.
Fans will remember this regardless what happens in the playoffs. Jayson Werth made a statement that will be heard in this town for months to come. It will be known as the $117 million home run. There is not price to put on it and whatever they are paying him it is just enough or not enough depending who you are talking to and how much they have had to drink.
If the Washington Nationals lose the playoffs to the Cardinals, they will have gone out with a bang and not a whimper. The pride of a team went screaming out into the darkness and landed not just over the fence, but somewhere near the moon. And I will remember that ball taking off from his bat, the feeling I had when I realized it was going to make the seats. It is a moment I will remember for a long time to come.
It was the best baseball game I have been to. So many people said that on the sidewalks as we left the stadium. “The Best.” Not the Cal Ripken record-breaking game, or any other game I can remember ranks with it. So bring on the ones that are better than this. I am ready. Friday night is another night of playoff baseball and whatever happens, it doesn’t get better than this.