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WASHINGTON – The ball Jayson Werth smashed for the first great moment in Washington Nationals history sat on a shelf in his locker. Across the front someone had scrawled: "Walk Off HR 10/11/12 2-1." And the man who gave Washington baseball its biggest October victory since 1933 seemed to not notice it as he slumped in his clubhouse chair.
He tried to remember key points of the 13-pitch at bat that ended with that ball sailing into the left-field bullpen, but he could not. He started. He stopped. Started again. At last he shook his head. His long, shaggy locks shook. He scowled from beneath his bedraggled beard.
"I have to go back and watch it," he said.
The first great moment in Washington Nationals history was bigger than a home run. It was so much more than a line drive rocketing over the fence and 44,292 fans refusing to leave, clapping and chanting into the night as if somehow the National League Division Series could end right then instead of extending to a Game 5 on Friday. The first great moment in Washington Nationals history mattered because it shouldn't have happened.
Werth was dead in his game-winning at bat, just as the Nationals appeared finished in this series against the Cardinals. He was down 0-2 to St. Louis reliever Lance Lynn just as Washington was down 2-1 to the Cardinals in a series that seemed so close to over. Werth hadn't hit a home run since Sept. 8 and the Nationals had barely touched St. Louis' pitching. What looked like a looming strikeout for the Nationals right fielder seemed also a prelude to some kind of broken playoff dreams for the team that finished with the best record in baseball.
Then came a long stretch of foul balls, some sliced to the side, others into the stands. Lynn kept firing. Werth kept swinging. With each mighty cut, he thought he was timing Lynn's roaring fastball a little better, until, at last, he started his swing slightly early on a 96-mph ball over the middle of the plate. The ball raced on a line to left field and Werth tossed his bat away, pointed at the Nationals dugout and received his first-ever congratulations on a home run from first-base coach Trent Jewett who never offers such things.
It's fitting that it was Werth who brought the first great moment in Washington Nationals history. His time here has been awkward and expensive, just as the Nationals' eight seasons in this city have been filled with complaints of overpriced tickets that were met with empty seats. For too long, the old Montreal Expos seemed much like the new Montreal Expos – irrelevant.
And in many ways, Werth was the symbol of all that was wrong with this franchise. He was signed before the 2010 season for $126 million over seven years, which was considered to be far beyond his value. Then he hit .232 with 20 home runs and was booed in his home park. He broke his wrist this season and missed most of May and all of June and July. As a winner grew around him, he came off as brooding, aloof and a waste of money.
"Jayson is not the most outgoing guy, but that doesn't mean he is a bad person," said Ryan Zimmerman the Nationals' longtime third baseman. "He comes across as gritty. I don't want to say unlikable. He's a gamer."
What the public doesn't see, Zimmerman continued, is the man who stomps around the clubhouse cheering, the one who tells them what it was like to win in Philadelphia, who opens them to history, to new things and who came back from his broken wrist faster than anyone could have expected this summer.
"He gets fired up in here," Zimmerman said.
As the music boomed in the Nationals' clubhouse and the players still whooped about the home run that salvaged their dying season, general manager Mike Rizzo stood near an entrance to the coaches' locker room. Rizzo has taken so much criticism for, among other things – shutting down pitcher Stephen Strasburg for these playoffs and giving the $126 million to Werth. Now in his moment of vindication, he smiled.
"It was more than just batting average and home runs," Rizzo said of his decision to bring in Werth. "He's battle-tested and been on winning clubs. He's been terrific in the clubhouse."
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Now Werth has brought the first great moment in Nationals history. And just like the franchise that has struggled to establish itself here, it was wrought with just enough missteps: the scoreboard had the wrong number of pitches, and Werth worried for a second that he had hit the ball too low and had stepped too slowly from the batter's box.
But it was also beautiful, with the stands finally filled here and so much joy bouncing into the chilly Washington evening. In the distance the Capitol dome glowed bright. Then Werth's face appeared, 40 feet high, on the gigantic scoreboard in right field, and he looked for all the world like a man pulled from a cabin deep in the woods. But nobody cared. The fans wouldn't leave. They roared and roared.
And so the at bat that was dead had brought back a team that was dead. The great season would not end after all.
Leave it to Jayson Werth, the most confounding of all the players on the confounding franchise to deliver the first great moment in Washington Nationals history. It couldn't be any other way.
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