|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
WASHINGTON -- It was an hour after the at-bat of a lifetime, and Jayson Werth still wasn't sure what just happened.
An hour after his epic 13-pitch mano a mano with Cardinals bullpen hulkster Lance Lynn.
An hour after a wave of the bat he'd dreamed about all his life.
An hour after he'd sent a baseball soaring through the pulsating D.C. night -- and into a whole new chapter of Washington baseball folklore.
An hour after as euphoric a trip around the bases as any man has ever made in his town.
And yet, more than anything, you know what Jayson Werth needed to complete his classic journey? A video machine. What else? Had to find the nearest video machine -- because whatever had just gone down in the turbocharged ballpark he plays in, it had all zipped by him way too fast for one mere human to comprehend.
"Really, I need to go back and watch the whole thing, watch the whole at-bat, and see exactly what went on," Werth was saying, an hour after the game-ending, season-saving, we'll-see-you-tomorrow-night home run that made the giant right-field scoreboard flash the biggest news in Washington on a memorable Thursday evening: Nationals 2, Cardinals 1. "I don't even remember it. It's almost like I blacked out. It was like a Will Ferrell moment."
|Jayson Werth's ninth-inning NLCS solo shot was his 14th career postseason homer.|
A Will Ferrell moment? Heck, it was more like an Aaron Boone moment. Oh, it didn't end a series. It didn't guarantee anything. All it did was give the Nationals one more day to play baseball, in a Game 5 of this National League Division Series that will send one team onward and one team fishing.
But somehow, for this team, for this town, it felt like something more powerful had just happened. Something special, something magical, something transformational.
Once, not so long ago, the Nationals couldn't get people in their town to come to this park. Then Jayson Werth sent a baseball flying off into history, and all of a sudden, people didn't want to leave this park.
For 10, 15, 20 minutes after his game-winning home run had clattered off the back wall of the visitors' bullpen, nearly all of the 44,392 customers who witnessed it remained frozen in place at their seats.
Spinning their red rally towels. Shrieking until their vocal cords hurt. Celebrating a moment they'd waited a generation to bask in. Doing whatever they could to hold on to the sort of feeling that makes being a fan worthwhile.
"Even doing interviews on the field [afterward], you could barely hear the other person talking," said closer Drew Storen. "It was that loud. It was one of those moments we'll never forget. We've seen those moments. But we've been on the other side of them. We've been in Philly. We've been in other places where we looked at each other and said, 'This is what we want to turn our place into.' I've always said that if we give these people something to cheer for, they will. And they did it today."
Then again, they'd just seen something extraordinary -- maybe more extraordinary than they even realized.
They'd seen the first postseason victory by a Washington baseball team in Washington since Oct. 5, 1933.
They'd seen the first Washington postseason victory to be decided in the bottom of the ninth inning since Oct. 5, 1924, a day when Roger Peckinpaugh doubled in Joe Judge to decide Game 2 of the only World Series any Washington team has ever won.
And, above all, they'd seen one of the most unique walk-off home runs ever hit:
The first ever, in the postseason, by a man playing for any Washington team. The first ever, in the postseason, by any member of the Nationals/Expos franchise, which has been around for 44 seasons now (the last eight in D.C.). And, very possibly, the first ever to come at the end of an at-bat that lasted 13 dramatic pitches.
We can't say that for certain, because we don't have pitch-count data for every postseason walk-off homer ever hit. We have reliable pitch-count data, in fact, for only most of the past two decades. But here's what we know:
• This was the longest at-bat to result in a game-ending postseason home run of any of the walk-off shots for which baseball-reference.com data is available. The longest before this? "Only" nine pitches, by Derek Jeter, on the way to his fabled Mr. November homer in the 2001 World Series.
• No one has had a recorded at-bat this long and then hit even a regular-season walk-off homer in 15 years -- since Garret Anderson hit one off Rick Aguilera, also on the 13th pitch he saw, on Sept. 15, 1997.
• Werth has been to the plate nearly 4,000 times in the regular season and hit 145 career homers. But he'd never, ever had a 13-pitch at-bat that ended in any kind of home run, let alone a walk-off. (His previous high: 12, before a 2009 homer off Oliver Perez.)
• And Werth's longest at-bat ever before launching a walk-off bomb was eight pitches, before a 2010 game-ender against (who else?) the Nationals. The reliever who allowed that one? Drew Storen. The same Drew Storen who turned into the winning pitcher in this game, thanks to the latest Jayson Werth walk-off homer.
"The funny thing," said reliever Tyler Clippard, "was that me and Drew were watching that at-bat in the dugout. And as it went on and on, he turned to me and said, 'This is starting to remind me of an at-bat just like that two years ago -- against me.' So he called it."
But, in a way, both Clippard and Storen also contributed to it.
In the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of this game, those two -- plus special bullpen guest star Jordan Zimmermann, making the first big league relief appearance of his career -- had done something extraordinary: They recorded eight consecutive outs via strikeout.
It was only the second time in postseason history that any bullpen had racked up eight straight outs via The Whiff (joining the 2005 Angels, in Game 1 of the ALCS) -- and the first time any bullpen had done that in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of a postseason game. And with each one of those strikeouts, eardrums rattled.
It isn't often you attend a baseball game where a bullpen changes the energy level of an entire ballpark full of people. But it happened in this game.
"Can a bullpen do that? Absolutely," said Storen. "You can switch the momentum when you have guys come out and pitch like Zim and Clip did. That changed the momentum and got the crowd into it. The crowd loves strikeouts."
Yeah, but not as much as it loves walk-off homers.
|It wasn't in the Cards: Lance Lynn couldn't slip that 13th pitch past Jayson Werth.|
As Werth walked to the plate for his ninth-inning at-bat, he trained his eyes and his consciousness only on Lynn, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound behemoth who had struck out six of the 15 Nationals he'd faced in this series. But all around them, a bullpen-inspired bedlam had finally enveloped a ballpark that had been waiting for something, anything, to get stoked about for the past two days.
It was a sound Werth was determined to tune out. But his teammates couldn't help but tune it in.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard it," chuckled third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, "in any place I've ever played."
As towels spun, feet stomped and 44,000 people chanted, "Let's go Nats," Werth dug in to begin an astounding at-bat, an at-bat that would change his life.
Lynn launched two supersonic fastballs for called strikes with his first two pitches. That was one part of this duel Jayson Werth didn't need any video help to recollect: "It felt," he said, "like I got to two strikes pretty quick."
But he took the next two pitches for balls one and two. And that's when this battle started to take on a life of its own.
He would foul off the next six pitches -- five of them fastballs clocked at 96 mph or faster. And after each one of them, he stepped out, took a giant gulp of oxygen, collected his thoughts and wriggled back in.
Then, on the 11th pitch, he took a curveball, barely low and outside -- in a spot where plate ump Jim Joyce had been ringing up strike calls all day long. But Joyce called this one ball three. Werth's description of that pitch: "Close." He wasn't kidding.
Next came another flameball, at 97. And yet another foul ball -- the seventh two-strike foul of this at-bat. And it sent Werth backing out of the box yet again, wondering, finally, how long he'd been up there. A minute? Five minutes? Half an hour? He'd lost all track.
"I remember looking up there [at the scoreboard], and I think it said 12 pitches," he said. "How long was that at-bat anyway? 13? So it was right before the last pitch. I looked up at the pitch count, and it said 12. And I said, 'Is that right?' I had to really study the board to make sure that was correct."
By that point, he'd decided, Lynn was done messing with the breaking ball. So he geared up for one more heat wave -- and got it. This one came whooshing at him, right down Pennsylvania Avenue, at 96 mph. And Jayson Werth let it fly.
Lynn had thrown 371 pitches in his career that traveled 95 mph, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Not a single one of them had ever been hit for a home run.
But not anymore. Not after this one.
It rocketed through the early-evening ozone. It clanked off the back wall of the Cardinals' bullpen. And when it fell to earth, a whole new chapter in Washington baseball had just been written.
Werth roared around first base, pointing a triumphant fist toward the stars. He stampeded around third and heaved his helmet into the night. Then he leaped onto home plate, disappeared into a sea of jubilation and soaked in one of the happiest moments of his career.
"I love October baseball," he would say later -- and never more than he did at that moment.
This was only the third walk-off October homer ever hit against the Cardinals, a team that has played 209 postseason baseball games. The others were stroked by Mickey Mantle in 1964 and Jeff Kent 40 years later.
It was just the fifth walk-off homer ever hit by a leadoff man in the postseason. And it was only the fifth in the past 10 Octobers by a team that needed to win to play another day.
And that, for Jayson Werth, was the true highlight: Not the home run itself -- but the dream the home run kept alive.
"Now," said Washington's first-ever walk-off October hero, "we get to play tomorrow. And that's the best part."