ST. LOUIS — The Nationals can’t say exactly how much of the $126 million they gave Jayson Werth was for his experience, intangibles and ability to set the tone of a major league clubhouse. But it was a big chunk because he’s played in five times as many postseason games as any other Nat. From the day Werth arrived last season, General Manager Mike Rizzo said that attitude, since rebranded “Natitude,” was as big a part of the outfielder’s total value as any one physical gift.
So, it’s no accident Werth’s locker was the first one by the door as you entered the Nats’ silent clubhouse after a homely 10-4 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday that kept Washington’s magic number at one to win the NL East.
Frustration hung in the air. “I had the first chance to clinch it,” Ross Detwiler said of the first first-place finish in generations. “I sucked,” he said after allowing seven runs while getting only seven outs on 81 ugly pitches.
Nearby, a Cards attendant tried to hand Manager Davey Johnson a postgame box score.
“I don’t read that crap. I live it,” Johnson said tartly. “I don’t read it when we win and I’m damn sure not reading it after that one.”
Werth, who usually wears defeats as hard as anyone in the Nats’ room, had a different viewpoint after a series here that also included a 12-2 beatdown Friday in which Edwin Jackson, a crucial postseason starter, was demolished for nine runs while getting just four outs.
“We played all season to get in position to win one game and now we get to do it in front of our own fans,” Werth said. “Can’t wait.”
Those last two words are the ones that count. You can’t put a price on them because they come from Werth’s own experience with the powerhouse Phillies, not out of any leadership manual. Werth knows how hard it is to clinch your first NL East title. There’s no place for frustration or embarrassment in the equation. There’s only room for “can’t wait.”
Five years ago, the Phils entered the next-to-last game of the season with a one-game lead and, as if by some great gift of the scheduling gods, got to play one of the least talented teams ever to wear big league uniforms — the pesky ’07 Nats, who in the preseason were predicted to lose 130 games.
The Phillies lost that day to the Nats and humble little lefty Matt Chico to fall back into a first-place tie on the last day of the season. That’s anguish. That’s egg on your face. That’s “what’ll they say in Philly if we blow this.”
Now the tables are turned as the Phils come to Washington for the last three games of the season, starting Monday night. So far, the Nats face only a fraction of the uncertainty and pressure that is the rule in pennant races.
For the Nats not to win the division title, a seven-way parlay would have to hit for the Braves, which is more than a 100-to-1 shot. The Nats would have to go 0-3; the Braves would have to go 3-0 and then beat Washington in a one-game playoff on Thursday at Nationals Park.
The arithmetic powerfully favors a celebration on South Capital Street soon. But this is unequivocally a case of the sooner, the better.
The Nats have been grinding a long time, especially for the last 16 days, as they have played one desperate playoff-contending team after another. And the strain started to show here in Busch Stadium.
This is a team that needs to clinch quickly so it can take a day or preferably two days off to clear its head and defrag its nervous system before the playoffs. John Lannan (4-0) goes on Monday; then, if matters still aren’t settled, ace Gio Gonzalez (21-8) works on Tuesday. You don’t want to think further; that way madness lies. The Phils have Cliff Lee slated Wednesday. Of course, the Braves could be sociable and lose. But they seem disinclined.
“We’ve been playing good teams. There’s no better way to do it,” said reliever Drew Storen of the Nats’ 4-3 homestand against the contending Dodgers and Brewers followed by this 3-3 trip to Philly and St. Louis. “It’s a little gut check now at the end and on our own turf. Every time we’ve needed to win a game, we have. Now we need to get one more.”
The greatest concern for the Nats is not the probability of clinching, but the sloppy and, at times, rattled quality of their play recently. You thought the second-youngest team in baseball was going to cruise through the last week of this race without symptoms of nerves?
At the moment, the Nats have a starting rotation with a split personality. The team’s two main aces, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, have been near their sharpest form in their last five starts. Entering October, nothing could be better. But the back of the rotation, including a gruesome 7.92 ERA for Jackson in September, has been shaky. No, Stephen Strasburg’s not warming up in the bullpen. That decision was made seven months ago.
Twice in a row, after a breakout season, has Detwiler misplaced his mechanics and rushed his tempo, dropping his elbow and losing his proper arm slot. “The last one [a loss to the Phillies] was a bad inning,” he said. “This one was a bad everything.”
Then, sardonically, he added, “This was for all the fans back in D.C.”
So, for another day or two, but not three — no, lets not make it three — the proper tone is the one that the most experienced Nats recognize.
“It’s not really the time I want to see it,” Johnson said of Jackson and Detwiler’s recent travails. “But they’ve been so good I don’t worry about it. I don’t have a doghouse.
“It’s better to clinch it at home,” Johnson said, “for our fans.”
You could almost believe him. Except that, somewhere, champagne was being packed and carried out of Busch Stadium. Still unopened.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
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