Thomas Boswell: The playoffs arrive in earnest, and it was worth the wait
By Thomas Boswell,
That was the first real baseball game played in Washington in my lifetime.
That’s what all the fuss is about when fans in other towns talk about postseason baseball — the thing Washington hasn’t had since 1933 — and rave about elimination games. When players perform better in the playoffs than they ever have in their lives, while huge crowds go absolutely out of their minds until, finally, the home team wins on a walk-off home run.
For decades, my job has taken me to see real baseball in October, the chilly month that boils players from the inside out with pressure, turning the sport into a human lobster pot. The Nationals’ 2-1 walk-off win in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Thursday was the full-blown real deal. The sport may get slightly crazier, louder, more perfect in its moment of crescendo by a couple of clicks, if it’s in a World Series. But that’s all.
“It sounded like RFK when the Redskins were good. You can’t hear the person next to you and they’re screaming,” said Mark Lerner, the Nationals principal owner, standing in his team’s locker room minutes after Jayson Werth led off the bottom of the ninth with a 13-pitch at-bat that culminated with a home run to keep the Nationals postseason alive. “That’s the only thing I can compare it to in D.C. And Cal Ripken’s home run the night he broke the 2,131 [consecutive games] record.”
Washington met playoff baseball for two hours and 55 minutes at Nationals Park. It was quite an introduction, a whirlwind romance.
No one among the 44,392 will forget Thursday afternoon, down to near darkness, as they cheered and chanted from the first pitch, then stood en masse for innings at a time. Their roars built as Jordan Zimmermann, then Tyler Clippard and finally Drew Storen came out of the bullpen to strike out eight St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh, eight and ninth innings to keep the score 1-1.
And, of course, they won’t forget Werth’s marathon of foul balls against Cardinal 17-game winner Lance Lynn, who was throwing 97 mph and mixing in curves and sliders. One lunging, awkward Werth swing after another produced a weak foul pop up that barely found its way into the box seats as he searched and sorted his was through Lynn’s repertoire, searching for a winning lottery ticket. Those fouls are a Werth trademark, a misleading show of weakness that actually measures his determination and cussedness. To players themselves, each foul means the fuse is closer to the dynamite.
As that lucky 13th pitch, a fastball, rocketed toward the back wall of the Cardinals’ bullpen, scattering St. Louis birds, Werth grabbed his bat by the sweet spot, flipped it toward his dugout and pointed to his teammates. Rounding third and approaching home, he tried to set a new record for highest helmet hurl by a 6-foot-6 man with a mane and beard. He then landed on home plate from a considerable height — the same plate that will now have at least one more day of good use on Friday when the Nationals’ ace, Gio Gonzalez, has a rematch of Game 1 with Adam Wainwright.
In the stands, fans produced signs: “Werth It” and “Werthquake.”
“My first day here,” said Werth, remembering his controversial $126-million free agent contract, “I went to a Capitals game. It was packed. Somebody told me, ‘A few years ago, this place was empty. If you win in this town, they’ll show up.
“Two years later…” said Werth, offering one of his rare wolfish grins.
“To see that was the coolest moment I’ve ever been part of on a baseball field,” said Ryan Zimmerman, forgetting all his own walk-off homers on random summer games which, frankly, meant next to nothing in the baseball scheme of things, but had to serve their purpose hereabouts until the true thing arrived. That walk-off the night they opened this $620-million ballpark? Zimmerman had forgotten it.
“I’m so happy for Jayson, for him to have this moment after some of the stuff he went through last year,” said Zimmerman. “He is not a very interactive person with the fans. That’s not a bad thing. But for a fan, that makes it hard to be a fan of him. They don’t get to see all the things he does in here for our team. Now they can see. This is one of the reasons we got this guy.”
For reference, this was Werth’s 14th post-season home run. On Wednesday night, Werth watched as his old Phillies teammate and friend Raul Ibanez hit a ninth-inning game-tying home run, then a walk-off home run, to lead the Yankees over the Orioles. “Baseball this time of year is the best time in sports,” said Werth. “I watched all the games. I probably texted him 20 times.”
In his first moments in the Nats clubhouse after the game, with the sound system booming, Werth retreated to a corner, got out his phone, looked at it and laughed. It was Ibanez, texting to him, over and over.
Where does this homer stand among Werth’s post-season memories? Meaningful silence. He and Phils fans don’t get along so well any more, since some of them cheered and yelled, “You deserve it” after he broke his wrist trying to make a sliding outfield catch this season.
“I can’t remember any other ones,” Werth said.
What the last two days on South Capital Street demonstrated was that, while the Nats nerves weren’t quite ready for the biggest stage on Wednesday, their fans have been officially playoff-ready since the first usher let the first patron with a playoff ticket through the turnstiles. Perhaps roars for favorite players and jet flyovers could be expected on Wednesday. But Game 4 was the first in Nats Park history in which every pitch was watched with the passionate intensity that actually brings the sport to life and gives it an ebbing or swelling flow of unremitting tension.
Perhaps two dozen times the crowd burst into loud park-wide boos for an umpire’s apparently innocuous call of “ball” or “strike,” when it merely changed the count in favor of batter or pitcher. As recently as a year ago, some entire games might not get that much reaction. The expression “into every pitch,” which is the very heart of baseball, now has meaning in D.C.
“These guys are all geared up,” said Manager Davey Johnson. “So it’s going to be fun [Friday] night.”
If the Nationals use this excitement to find energy, while keeping the focus born of desperation that drove them throughout this game, then Friday night may bring a remarkable game. Because the Cardinals, the world champion Cardinals, will surely find that place.
Winner-take-all-games are an entirely different place than any other games in baseball. You can only learn about them by playing in them.
Now the Nationals, and a town that finally knows what a real October baseball classic feels like, get to have that experience.
If all of them, players and fans, can get themselves back down off the ceiling.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS: Werth delivers in 9th, forces Game 5 Box score: Nationals 2, Cardinals 1 Reid: Detwiler answers the call For former free agent, a redeeming moment Werth’s walk-off: A view from the stands More video of game-winner Audio: Slowes with the call The at-bat, pitch-by-pitch Werth’s trip around the bases Joy, and then more baseball for Game 5 Nationals expect their ace will deal Photos: More from Nationals Park Nats Journal: Harper hitless but not frustrated Nats Journal: Lynn says ‘He beat me’ Cards to rely on Wainwright, experience Nats grid: Social media feed Postseason scoreboard Postseason schedule