- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The beauty of these games we obsess about is that anything can happen. Raul Ibanez can pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth inning and hit a game-tying home run for the New York Yankees. (And follow that with a game-winning one in the 12th.) The Cincinnati Reds can take two on the road in San Francisco, then blow the series by losing three in a row at home.

And that’s just one 24-hour period in the life of the baseball playoffs.

The Washington Nationals needed one of those Anything Can Happen moments in Game 4 of their National League Division Series on Thursday. Backs to the wall against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, they needed their No. 5 starter, Ross Detwiler, to hang with the Cards’ ace, Kyle Lohse. They needed the improbable to trump the predictable. They needed the law of averages to be temporarily suspended. They needed … well, you know what they needed. They needed sports to be sports.

And lo and behold, sports were sports. But rather than get ahead of ourselves, rather than cut to Jayson Werth’s ninth-inning dramatics, why don’t we begin at the beginning of this 2-1 Nats win? Or should I call it a stay of execution? However you categorize it, it’s a game that deserves to be savored, to be replayed in the mind from now until 8:30 Friday night, when the two teams will finally settle things at Nationals Park. (Unless, of course, they don’t settle them until Saturday morning.)

Just to touch on the highlights: You had Adam LaRoche rocketing a home run to center field in the second to give the Nats a 1-0 lead — and help banish the unpleasant memories of the previous two games. You had Detwiler, scatter-armed in his final two regular-season outings, keeping pace with Lohse, allowing only an unearned run and three hits in six innings.

“Unbelievable,” Davey Johnson said of his fungo-thin lefty. “Won the game for us.”

You had Jordan Zimmermann, knocked around in Game 2, come out of the bullpen after Detwiler was done and blow away the side. You had Tyler Clippard do the same in the eighth — and Drew Storen nearly follow suit in the ninth. Eight strikeouts in nine batters. How’s that for a bullpen?

Zimmermann’s appearance was particularly noteworthy, inasmuch as he hadn’t pitched in relief since his second year in the minors. So it is in the playoffs. Starters become relievers. Guys who were hitting .232 in Triple-A tear it up against big-league pitching (see Pete Kozma). And Teddy, I’ll just add, turns into Usain Bolt. (Jordan’s approach was fairly simple, according to Johnson. “I just tried to throw it as hard as I could throw it,” he told Steve McCatty.)

Finally, you had Ian Desmond making a diving, run-saving catch in left field to end the top of the ninth — and the crowd of 44,392 making itself heard at that and every other opportunity. Great theater. The kind of game Washington hasn’t had nearly enough of in recent years.

The shadows disappeared. Night moved in. Each at-bat, each pitch, frayed at the fans’ nerves. And then the Anything Can Happen Factor kicked in. Lance Lynn took the mound for St. Louis, Werth stepped in at the plate for Washington, and they fought each other for 14 pitches. This is the same Werth who, since coming to the Nationals, has turned from a middle-of-the-order slugger into a leadoff man specializing in on-base percentage.

On pitch No. 13, Lynn left a fastball out over the plate — down, but definitely in the Crush Zone. Werth jumped on it, sending it screaming into the Cardinals bullpen. Suddenly, as he frolicked around the bases and into his teammates’ embrace, the ballpark exploding, his much-discussed $126 million contract seemed like a bargain. Just as suddenly, the club that had lost consecutive games by a combined score of 20-4 was still breathing — with its meal ticket, Gio Gonzalez, ready to go in Game 5.

“Doesn’t matter how much you lose or how much you lose by,” Werth said, “it’s 0-0 starting the game the next day. I just knew the type of mentality our club has, and the guys, they bring it every day. I knew that wasn’t going to get them down.”

As it turned out, the Nationals’ unexpected season, one that saw them post the best record in MLB and win their first NL East title, had (at least) one more surprise. The Nats dug down against the Cards, as gritty a team as there is, and somehow managed win a postseason game despite getting only three hits. How often has that happened, you ask? Just a dozen times since baseball broke into divisions in 1969 has a club won with three or fewer (according to my research at baseball-reference.com).

Another no-tomorrow game awaits Friday, and there’s no telling what’s in store for us. I mean, it’s baseball. It’s October. All things are possible — as we’ve been reminded yet again.