The first journey of the Washington Nationals into postseason baseball, the 2012 National League Division Series, began on December 5, 2010, when they signed free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. Werth was an important contributor to the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2007-10 postseason runs, including the World Series crown in 2008. He brought a strong work ethic, a clubhouse presence, and postseason experience to a team that was building for the future while establishing competitiveness in the present. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo characterized the signing as “an unofficial beginning to ‘Phase 2’ of the Nationals, from moving to building a farm system to expecting to win.”1
After a difficult 2011 season in which he batted .232, the 2012 season brought a serious injury. Werthbroke his left wrist on May 6 attempting to make a diving catch against his former team, the Phillies. He returned to the Nationals’ lineup on August 2 and finished the season batting .300 in 81 games played.
In the NLDS, the Nationals and Cardinals split the first two games in St. Louis.2 The Nationals took the first game when Tyler Moore’s two-out, pinch-hit single knocked in two runs in the eighth inning for a 3-2 lead that was preserved by Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. In the second game slugfest that produced a combined 23 hits and six home runs, the Cardinals rocked Jordan Zimmermann early for a relatively easy 12-4 win. The series moved to Washington for the third game. The Cardinals jumped on Edwin Jackson early as well, including Pete Kozma’s three-run home run in the second inning for a 4-0 lead. Chris Carpenter and three relievers shut out the Nationals 8-0 on seven hits, and the stage was set for the Nationals to win-or-go-home the next day.
On paper, the Cardinals probably had the advantage in the pitching matchup for this game. Kyle Lohse had a career-best year in the regular season, finishing with a 16-3 record, a 2.86 ERA, and a league-leading .842 winning percentage. He had postseason pitching experience dating back to 2002 with the Minnesota Twins. That experience had finally yielded his first postseason victory six days earlier when he beat the Atlanta Braves 6-3 in the wild-card game to help advance the Cardinals to the NLDS. Ross Detwiler, the Nationals’ starting pitcher, had been their first-round pick (sixth overall) in the 2007 amateur draft. The 2012 season was the first in which Detwiler did not have to shuttle between the Nationals 25-man roster and their farm system. He produced a 10-8, 3.40 record in 27 starts. The opportunity was waiting for Detwiler likely because of the controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in early September after he pitched 159⅓ innings.3
In the bottom of the second inning, Adam LaRoche led off with a home run off Lohse on a 3-and-2 count to give the Nationals a short-lived lead. Pete Kozma walked to lead off the Cardinals third inning and was sacrificed to second by Lohse. A groundball error by Ryan Zimmermanadvanced Kozma to third and he scored an unearned run when Carlos Beltran hit a sacrifice fly to center field to tie the game at 1-1 without the aid of a hit.
The game produced precious little offense to speak of, three hits by each team. Detwiler was every bit the match for the Cardinals as they managed only three singles in his six innings. Over the last three innings, Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storenstruck out eight Cardinals. As the teams entered the bottom of the ninth inning tied 1-1, Ryan Zimmerman’s single in the bottom of the fourth inning was the Nationals’ most recent hit.
Lynn, used primarily as a starter in the regular season (18-7, 3.78 ERA), was making his third relief appearance of the NLDS. He faced two batters in relief of Adam Wainwright in the first game. He struck out Jayson Werth swinging with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning to hold a 2-1 Cardinals lead. In that second game slugfest, Lynn yielded two solo home runs to Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in a three-inning relief appearance, but managed to strike out five Nationals, including Werth, and record the victory. In fact, Werth struck out five times in those first two games.
Werth was the first batter in the bottom of the ninth and as writer Grant Bisbee described it in detail, we were about to see a “miniseries in 13 parts.”4Werth was able to work a pitch count to advantage. In 2011, he led the National League with 4.37 pitches per plate appearance.5 That skill was to come in handy against Lance Lynn.
Lynn’s well located 94-mph and 95-mph fastballs at the knees put Werth in an 0-and-2 hole, but he wasn’t tempted by either a waste pitch curveball in the dirt or a 96-mph heater, just high and outside, and the count was even at 2-and-2. Werth proceeded to foul off the next six pitches, including a foul ball nearly caught by Allen Craig leaning into the Nationals dugout. (The ball hit Craig in the cheek after bouncing off a bench.) On the 11th pitch, a borderline call yielded a full count. Bisbee speculated that umpire Jim Joyce might have called a third strike if Yadier Molina hadn’t dropped the ball.6Werth fouled off the next pitch before planting Lynn’s 96-mph fastball (and 13th pitch) off the back wall of the Cardinals bullpen in left field. For the moment, amid the deafening noise at Nationals Park, no one in the crowd wanted to leave. They were going to savor the Nationals’ first postseason victory in Nationals Park.
How did pitcher and batter remember that moment after the game was over?“He beat me,” Lynn said. “Everyone in this stadium knew what I was throwing there. You tip your cap to him. The guy can play, and he beat me.”Werth said of his at-bat, “It seems like the whole world just kind of goes away. The situation just kind of melts away. You just kind of focus on the ball.”7
Formally speaking, baseball returned to Washington after a 32-year absence when the Washington Nationals put on their away uniforms and lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 8-4 at Citizens Bank Park on April 14, 2005. Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell made the point that it was Stephen Strasburg’s major-league debut on June 8, 2010 that “put the Nats back on the map.”8 If the postseason serves to measure baseball success, then Jayson Werth’s walkoff home run is the first mark in Nationals history. He had won the epic battle of batter versus pitcher. “There was one waste pitch, 10 beautiful pitches, and two hittable pitches. Werth didn’t miss the hittable pitch.”9 The video of the home run and the ensuing celebration has been replayed countless times and the call by Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler has served as part of radio broadcasts on numerous occasions.10
From Section 105, my eyes traced the path of the ball to deep left-center as soon as it jumped off Jayson Werth’s bat. It disappeared to our left into the Cardinals bullpen and the drama and ecstasy of this walkoff home run meant they would play a fifth game the next day to decide who moved on to the NLCS.
Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga best captured what lay ahead by describing what had just happened:
“Instantly, a full day of worry and hours of hair-pulling tension were replaced by euphoria, the District’s best baseball moment in generations. … Werth’s homer set up another day of the season, another day to expand ulcers and shorten fingernails for the 44,392 fans who filled the park – and well beyond.”11
The author accessed Baseball-Reference.com for box scores/play-by-play information (baseball-reference.com/boxes/WAS/WAS201210110.shtml) and other data, as well as Retrosheet.org (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/2012/B10110WAS2012.htm).
1 Adam Kilgore, “Nationals Sign Jayson Werthto Seven-Year, $126 Million Contract,” Washington Post, December 6, 2010.
2 The decision to add a second wild-card team came after the 2012 schedule had been finalized. Instead of a 2-2-1 game format, a 2-3 format was utilized for 2012 only, eliminating a travel day if a fifth game was necessary to determine the NLDS winner (Barry M. Bloom, “Addition of Wild Card Berths Finalized for 2012,” MLB.com, March 2, 2012, accessed July 8, 2017, m.mlb.com/news/article/26927024//).
3 Adam Kilgore, “Stephen Strasburg Shut Down for the Season,” Washington Post, September 8, 2012.
4 Grant Bisbee, “Jayson Werth and Lance Lynn: Pitch by Pitch,” SBNation, October 12, 2012, accessed June 19, 2017, sbnation.com/2012/10/12/3494010/jayson-werth-home-run-lance-lynn-washington-nationals-playoffs.
5 “MLB Player Batting Stats – 2011,” ESPN.com, accessed July 8, 2017, com/mlb/stats/batting/_/year/2011/league/nl/sort/pitchesPerPlateAppearance/type/expanded.
7 Adam Kilgore, “NLDS Game 4: Jayson Werth Homer Wins It for Nationals in the Bottom of the Ninth,” Washington Post, October 11, 2012.
8 Steven C. Weiner, “June 8, 2010: Stephen Strasburg Strikes Out 14 in MLB Debut,” SABR Baseball Games Project.
11 Barry Svrluga, “Jayson Werth’s Walk-Off Home Run Powers Nationals to Game 5 Against Cardinals,”Washington Post, October 11, 2012.