Friday, October 12, 2012
WASHINGTON — Hours before Jayson Werth’s game-ending homer on a 13-pitch at-bat extended the Washington Nationals’ surprising season, before a bullpen trio got eight consecutive outs via strikeouts, before Ian Desmond’s acrobatic catch, a guy who isn’t even on the playoff roster fired up a team facing elimination against the defending champs.
Mark DeRosa, a spare-part utility player who made his major league debut 14 years ago, grabbed the microphone of his clubhouse karaoke machine and quoted from Roosevelt’s rousing 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech — aiming to make the Nationals think they could beat the St. Louis Cardinals and set up a Game 5 in their NL division series tonight.
“Our backs were against the wall. I wanted to say something that brought us together, a band of brothers who go out fighting and see what happens,” DeRosa explained.
Worked wonders, apparently.
“Epic,” was closer Drew Storen’s description. “It’s the stuff movies are made of.”
So was the scene in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 4, when Washington beat St. Louis 2-1 to tie their NLDS.
Joyous, bouncing teammates waiting to greet him, the red-clad crowd raucous as can be, Werth yanked off his batting helmet with two hands and thrust it a dozen feet overhead before leaping onto home plate after his big hit.
A little less than two years ago, the Nationals showered Werth with millions, persuading him to come show them how to win. With one swing of his black bat at dusk Thursday, Werth wiped away whatever disappointments marred his early days in D.C.
Werth led off the bottom of the ninth inning against reliever Lance Lynn by fouling off pitch after pitch before sending the ball beyond the wall in left field, giving the Nationals a tense victory.
“That’s the way that game should have ended: Jayson Werth hitting a home run,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “He has not hit that many this year. ... Unbelievable. Great effort on his part.”
The best-of-five series will end tonight in Washington, with the winner advancing to face the San Francisco Giants in the NL championship series. The starters are a rematch of Game 1, which Washington won 3-2: Gio Gonzalez on the mound for the NL East champion Nationals, and Adam Wainwright for the wild-card Cardinals.
“It’s what you play all season for, and what you work out all winter for, and what you get to spring training early for,” Werth said. “We have a chance tomorrow to take that next step. I know my teammates will be ready. And the city will, too.”
The homer was Werth’s first of the series, the 14th of his postseason career. He won the 2008 World Series and a string of division titles with the Philadelphia Phillies, then moved to Washington before last season as a free agent on a $126 million, seven-year contract that stunned much of baseball.
He managed to hit only five homers with 31 RBIs in 2012, missing 75 games because of a broken left wrist. Last year, his first in Washington, Werth hit .232 with 58 RBIs, and there was grumbling about his worth.
That vanished when Werth circled the bases, raising his right index finger in a “No. 1” gesture, while the announced attendance of 44,392 roared, and other Nationals raced out of their dugout to greet him.
“I’m just happy that these fans got to see it, because obviously he had a rough year last year, and he got hurt this year, and I don’t think the fans realize how good of a player Jason is,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “For him to have a moment like this in front of the home fans, and in front of this atmosphere, I couldn’t be happier for him. He deserves it.”
Werth’s arrival certainly coincided with a quick turnaround: The Nationals lost 100 games in 2008 and 2009, but led the majors with 98 wins this year.
“I knew that a winning ballclub would bring the fans,” Werth said, “and here we are, two years later, and they’re showing up and it’s awesome.”
According to DeRosa, Werth heard the pregame oration and came running to hear.
“I feel like if they’re going to keep me around and keep me here, there’s a reason for it,” DeRosa said. “I’ve been in these games. I’ve grinded.”
Roosevelt’s speech, which he gave in Paris, includes the lines: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Werth’s shot provided a sudden end to a classic postseason contest filled with tremendous pitching. Each team managed only three hits. No Washington batter ever came to the plate with a runner in scoring position. Both of the host’s runs came on solo shots, including Adam LaRoche’s in the second off Kyle Lohse.
Lynn, usually a starter for St. Louis but a reliever in these playoffs, was making his third appearance of this series.
“Heater. He beat me,” Lynn said. “I’ve had success this series with him, and, you know, everyone in the stadium knew what I was throwing there.”
“It was just a matter of time,” Lynn added. “I was challenging him, and he was up for it.”
The righty was the Cardinals’ third pitcher — facing only one batter — and manager Mike Matheny was asked afterward why he didn’t use closer Jason Motte.
“If we were at home, it would have been a very easy decision to bring in Motte,” Matheny said, explaining that if he used up his closer and St. Louis went ahead later in the game, a reliever not used to getting a save would have needed to try.
“Had a lot of confidence in Lance. He came in throwing the ball well,” Matheny added. “Werth just put together a very good at-bat.”
Cardinals batters decidedly did not down the stretch. Washington’s Jordan Zimmermann — the Game 2 starter making his first relief appearance in the majors — Tyler Clippard and Storen combined for eight Ks in three innings. Storen pitched the top of the ninth and got the win.
“All of them were throwing harder than I’ve seen them throw,” Johnson said.
Storen walked No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma with two outs, before getting pinch hitter Matt Carpenter on a twisting, stumbling overhead catch by shortstop Ian Desmond, who wound up sliding face-down along the grass in short left field. When Desmond rose, he chucked the ball high into the stands and yelled.
Moments later, Werth had all the towel-twirling spectators yelling, too, thanks to the way he turned on a 96 mph fastball. For much of the game, the hometown fans were rather quiet, perhaps dreading a sooner-than-expected end to their team’s better-than-expected year.
While nearly to a man — except, naturally, for Werth — the young Nationals are new to this sort of thing, the Cardinals have quite the postseason pedigree: Over the past two years, St. Louis is 5-0 in games where it faces elimination, including must-have victories in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans in this clubhouse that have been in big spots before and have lost games and know how to bounce back,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said. “We’ve done a good job of that lately, and we’re going to try to do it again.”
Gonzalez, who led the majors with 21 wins, will oppose Wainwright, a 14-game winner who was a spectator during last year’s title run while recovering from reconstructive surgery on his pitching elbow.
“Of course I wish we would have won tonight, but you know what? This is every pitcher’s dream, I would say,” Wainwright said. “Every competitor’s dream is to go in huge moments like that, so I look forward to the challenge.”