The ninth inning Friday night at Nationals Park included violence and joy, serendipitous rain and giddy celebration, a harrowing buildup and a stunning finish. Rafael Soriano’s penchant for danger reached an apex as Daniel Murphy’s liner hissed through raindrops. Jayson Werth drifted to the warning track, leapt at the right field wall, thrust his glove inches over the fence and pulled back a would-be game-tying home run for the final out — a game-ending, night-saving catch.
“I probably should’ve untucked my shirt,” Werth said. “But I didn’t.”
After the Washington Nationals’ 5-2 victory over the New York Mets, Soriano and Werth retreated to their opposite ends of the clubhouse. Soriano changed quickly into white jeans and a garish T-shirt and walked out the clubhouse door with a drink in his hand. Werth received treatment and lifted weights before he ambled to his locker, pulled on a trucker cap that read “Gone Squatchin” and sat down to address reporters.
Werth and Soriano, the two oldest, most-experienced Nationals before veteran pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs arrived Friday, come from different worlds and approach the game in disparate ways. On Friday night, they combined to end the game in apt fashion.
Werth possesses size and athleticism rare in an outfielder. Soriano knows how to leap from the high wire to the platform.
“Sometimes I do my job. Sometimes I blow the game,” Soriano said.
And Friday night, did he get the save, or did Werth?
“Him,” Soriano said, chuckling outside the Nationals’ clubhouse. “It be him.”
Everything about the Nationals’ night could have been easy. Sparked by Werth’s RBI single, they grabbed a 3-0 lead after the first inning against left-hander Jon Niese. Their lead grew to 5-0 as Tanner Roark started with four scoreless innings. After Roark surrendered two runs in the fifth, Ross Detwiler, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard set up Soriano with one scoreless inning apiece.
And everything about the ninth could have been easy, too. Soriano began the inning with a scare — catcher Anthony Recker throttled a cutter to deep center field, and Denard Span made the catch with his heels at the fence. Soriano was unfazed.
“I don’t think he hit it too good,” Soriano said. “I see the swing, and I hear the noise off the bat. It’s all right. Let me try to come back, get ahead of the hitter. Let’s see what happens.”
As Soriano ran the count on Ruben Tejada to 0-2, the night veered into the bizarre. A fan named Andrew Dudley — an activist and children’s book author who bills himself as “The Jungle Bird” — sprinted on to the field from the seats along the first base line.
“I’m glad he didn’t come charge at me or something,” first baseman Tyler Moore said.
Dudley trotted around the bases as security guards walked toward the field. After Dudley crossed home, he mimicked a swing and walked toward a security guard, willing to turn himself in. The guard grabbed him around the throat and body slammed Dudley to the dirt a few feet behind catcher Wilson Ramos.
“That was a funny moment,” Ramos said. “He pushed that guy on the ground hard. But, you know, that guy drinks too much.”
After the security members cuffed Dudley and led him away, Soriano retired Tejada. But the delay had rattled him. Three times in his career — once with the Seattle Mariners and twice with the Atlanta Braves — Soriano had been disrupted by a fan on the field, he said. And he loathed it.
“I get mad because I’ve got to wait so long,” Soriano said. “It’s not easy for me. I get mad when that [stuff] happens.”
Promptly, Soriano walked Juan Lagares on four pitches. Murphy loomed on deck, the tying run and the Mets’ hottest hitter, and Soriano walked Eric Young on seven pitches.
“To the guys that I walked, I threw a couple pitches inside,” Soriano said. “To me, I think they were strikes. When it happens like that sometimes, it’s not easy for me because it’s not easy to throw strikes. When you think you make a good pitch and the umpire doesn’t call it, how you want me to pitch?”
Up came Murphy. Ramos called a cutter and set up outside. Soriano’s pitch started down the middle and curled to the inner half of the plate, precisely where Murphy could mash it. He blasted it to right field. The crowd gasped.
“The rain might have knocked it down a little bit, given me a better chance at it,” Werth said. “It was close. I know he hit it good. Recker hit that good to start the inning off. I think the mist might have helped us out a little bit.”
Werth chopped his steps as he neared the fence. Inches from the wall, he leapt. Even afterward, he still didn’t know whether the ball would have cleared the fence if not for the intervention of his black Rawlings.
“It’s one of those things,” Werth said. “I don’t know if you learn it or if you practice it or you’re just born with it. I’m not sure.”
The stadium exhaled, then erupted. Behind Werth, bullpen coach Matt LeCroy hollered and banged on the chain-link fence. On the mound, Soriano crossed himself, pounded his mitt and ripped his jersey out of his pants. Werth licked his lips and trotted in from right, no expression on his face. Teammates lined up to high-five him.
“It was a little scarier than I wanted it to be,” said Moore, who drove in two runs. “He made a great play on the ball.”
As quickly as Soriano had endangered a victory, Werth bailed him and the Nationals out. They had pulled to within a half game of the Atlanta Braves, losers in St. Louis. By the time Werth finished his postgame routine, Soriano had long departed Nationals Park. They could both rest well thanks to one remarkable catch.
“It’s not easy,” Manager Matt Williams said. “You’re trying to make sure you get back there and make a play. They do it enough that once they step on the track they know how much room they’ve got. But it’s never easy.”