The ball took flight like a missile, zipping into the crisp fall air that settled over the nation's capital on this October Thursday night. It sailed into the visitors' bullpen in left field. It clanked with a thud off the back wall. It carried with it the hopes of a team, of a fan base, of an entire city hoping the team's season would live at least one more day.
As it landed, Jayson Werth's home run unleashed a celebration inside Nationals Park unlike any the District had seen at a ballpark in almost 80 years.
Werth flung his bat into the air and pointed to the Nationals' dugout as his teammates poured over the railing and fireworks exploded. He rounded third base, gave double low-fives to coach Bo Porter and sent his batting helmet flying. He leapt into home plate, into the arms of his teammates, and they stomped on it together.
Their 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series ensured them one more day.
"I've seen a lot this year with this team," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Some pretty special moments. I think that takes it."
There was so much to marvel as Werth chucked his wrist guards into the crowd and gathered himself. For six minutes he'd stood at the plate against Lance Lynn. For 13 pitches he stared at the Cardinals' big right-hander and fought. After the 12th pitch, he glanced at the total on the scoreboard and wondered, "Is that right?"
In the on-deck circle, Bryce Harper steeled himself to bunt a 97-mph pitch and move Werth over if the veteran got on. In the dugout, after Ross Detwiler had thrown six innings without allowing an earned run, and Jordan Zimmermann, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen had electrified the park with three scoreless out of the bullpen, Storen turned to Clippard and called Werth's shot.
Storen had been a victim of a Werth walk-off before. He knew what it looked like when the Nationals' $126-million man was in an at-bat like he was Thursday night. Like he had been against Heath Bell earlier this season. "He's going deep right here," he told Clippard.
"I was just kind of saying that hopefully, hoping for a good result," Storen said, his face red from the adrenaline. "Just trying to get some positive vibes out there."
"That was the at-bat of the year," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said as he made his way through the clubhouse.
Because of it, the Nationals will meet the Cardinals back here Friday night. They'll play one game. Gio Gonzalez will pitch for the Nationals, Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals. Winner take all. A date with the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS awaiting.
"This is what it's all about," Werth said. "This is what you play all season for. This is what you work out all winter for. This is why you start playing T-ball when you're 4. This is baseball. This is why you play."
In the clubhouse before the game, veteran Mark DeRosa read aloud Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena." Werth walked onto the field and reliever Michael Gonzalez asked him how he felt. "I feel like I want to play tomorrow," Werth told him.
Needing to win to keep their magical 2012 season alive, the Nationals turned to a strength that had deserted them this series: their pitching.
Detwiler is the man who earned a spot in the Nationals' rotation because Stephen Strasburg is not a part of it. Zimmermann the man who was chased after three innings in his first playoff chance Monday. Clippard and Storen are the Nationals' lethal late-game combination. They needed to pitch like they had one game for their lives. All of them. And they did.
They held the ferocious Cardinals lineup to one unearned run. They made it OK that their offense didn't put a single runner into scoring position all day. That they only mustered three hits. That Adam LaRoche's home run to lead off the second inning would be enough until the ninth.
They made it possible for Werth to win the game.
"The people that cheer 'Werthless,' he's not worthless," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who made a diving catch down the left field line to end the top of the ninth. "He hit fifth basically his whole life. To come in and accept the leadoff role and be in that situation, if he's hitting fifth, he's not hitting right there. He reaped the benefits of being a selfless player. That's why he's our leader."
"To get grown men, professional athletes, excited like kids ... there's certain moments," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "That's one of them. Where it's no holds barred and you can do whatever you want. That's what Jayson did there."
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