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.