After an afternoon of subpar baseball, the Nationals gave themselves a chance to steal a victory from the Mets. They trailed only 2-0 in the eighth because Jordan Zimmermann and Zach Duke had weathered three errors as the Nationals’ bats wilted against Dillon Gee, a right-hander who entered with an 8.36 ERA.
They had tapped into the soft belly of the Mets bullpen, represented in the form of Scott Rice, a lefty who spent 14 years in the minors before this year. Steve Lombardozzi hit a pinch-hit single. Denard Span walked. Jayson Werth took three consecutive balls for a 3-0 count. After chasing their tails for eight innings, the Nationals suddenly had the Mets where they wanted them.
Werth, the oldest and most experienced player on the Nationals, achieved a measure of ignominy unmatched this season. He became the first big leaguer of 2013 to ground into a double play on a 3-0 pitch. He hacked at an outside, 88-mph sinker and rolled it to shortstop. Ruben Tejada flipped to David Murphy, who fired to Ike Davis.
“I was caught up in the moment,” Werth said. “Looking back, I was trying to do too much. I was trying to win the game right there. That’s it, really. We can sit here and talk about the situation. I was just trying to do too much. The situation got the best of me. That’s probably one of the dumber things I’ve done on the field in a while. Look no further than right here. We had a chance to win the game. I feel like I pretty much blew it.”
It was not hard to divine how Manager Davey Johnson felt about Werth’s decision. He never blatantly evades postgame questions, but when asked about the 3-0 swing, Johnson blurted, “I’m not going to go into that.”
There was logic in Werth’s willingness to swing 3-0. Rice’s best quality is his ability to retire left-handed batters. Behind Werth were Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. Werth moved up in the batter’s box, looking for a pitch he could pull and drive over the fence. Rice had thrown seven straight balls, and “I felt like he was going to groove one,” Werth said. “I felt I could do damage.”
Coincidentally, in the first game Ryan Zimmerman spent on the disabled list, his presence may have changed Werth’s mind-set. With a right-hander in the hole rather than LaRoche, Werth may have been content to take, no matter what.
“With Harp up behind me in a two-run game, I was being aggressive,” Werth said. “I was convicted. I felt like I could make a difference right there. Like I said, I got caught up in it. That’s for sure.”
There was no logic in, or defense for, Werth’s decision to swing 3-0 at this particular sinker. Werth admitted later, “I couldn’t even tell you if it was a strike.” Rice was trying to aim down the middle and let the sinker’s movement take it to the edge of the plate.
“Jayson Werth gets paid a lot of money to drive in runs,” Rice said. “So he’s going to be hacking in those types of situations.”
“It was a definite misstep,” Werth said. “I felt like I let the guys down. That’s probably the worst part.”
Mets Manager Terry Collins expressed surprise. “But I’ve seen those big hitters do that,” Collins said. “And sometimes, they hit it over the fence.”
Said Mets third baseman David Wright, “We got lucky on that one.”
The willingness to 3-0 reflects what kind of player Werth is. He thinks deeply, and often unconventionally, about the game. It is one of his greatest strengths, actually. In this case, he was simply too eager to execute his unconventional plan.
“Jayson’s got his own way of doing some things,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “A lot of it really makes sense. He’ll do something, and I’ll go up to him, ‘What are you thinking, man?’ He’ll tell me why, and it makes a lot of sense. He’s really baseball smart.
“I think looking back, regardless of the outcome, he’d probably take. He was trying to give us three quick runs. We had nothing going pretty much all night. He was trying to spark something, and probably kind of forced it a little bit. Obviously a big part of the game, but we should have been on the board before that, anyways.”
Werth, surely, will take no comfort in LaRoche’s sentiment. The game fell to him. In a pivotal moment, he took a chance to win when, he knew, he should have taken a pitch.
“We had the guy on the ropes,” Werth said. “We had the guy we wanted on the ropes. We had the heart of order coming up. We had the lefties behind. In that situation, you got to let the game come to. I tried to go get the game. And that was it.”