Jayson Werth ripped the ball down the line in left field and suddenly became a spectator.
Either teammate Anthony Rendon would score from first base and the Nationals would win the game on Sunday afternoon or the Milwaukee Brewers would throw him out at the plate and the two teams would head to extra innings.
Washington third base coach Bobby Henley didn’t hesitate: He waved Rendon frantically around third base as the relay throw came in from the outfield. A weak attempt by Brewers left fielder Khris Davis skipped harmlessly past the cutoff man and what looked like a dicey send instead made sense as Rendon scored the game-winning run in a 5-4 victory.
Players piled out of the dugout and Werth raced off second base, his arm raised triumphantly in the air. The Nats (53-43) remained percentage points ahead of the Atlanta Braves (54-44) for first place in the NL East.
“When I hit it, I knew Rendon was running so I figured old ‘No Stop Sign’ Henley over there at third base, he’s just always waving guys around,” Werth said. “So I assumed he was gonna send him. I thought we had a chance.”
Werth credited defensive coordinator/advance coach Mark Weidemaier with the scouting that made the winning run possible. Washington knew going into the series that Davis has a weak arm. It didn’t help him any that Werth was able to pull the 3-1 pitch down the line with the outfield playing him to go the other way.
“He’s a good hitter. Knows when to work an at-bat and when to work a walk to get on base and he knows what to do, certainly, depending on the situation with a guy on first,” Nats manager Matt Williams said of Werth. “He’s looking to drive the ball and get an extra-base hit. With a guy on second base there, he’s more middle of the diamond, knowing a single would win it. But he’s been really good for us all year.”
That hit allowed Washington to make up for a poor start from Gio Gonzalez, who slammed the ball into Williams’ hand after being pulled in the fourth inning after 88 pitches and four runs allowed.
Craig Stammen, however, went 2 2/3 innings in relief and Ryan Zimmerman tied the game in the fourth inning with a two-run homer, his second in four days after a 17-game drought.
“That’s what good teams do,” Zimmerman said. “Gio is just like anybody. He’s not going to be perfect every time he goes out there. He tried to battle and [Stammen] comes in and gives us three good inning of relief. That was huge.”
And it’s indicative of a Nats team that doesn’t have any one player in the midst of a dominant season save for a handful of relief pitchers at the back end of the bullpen. No offensive player has an OPS above .833. The starting pitching has been excellent, but isn’t relying on a single Cy Young candidate. Gonzalez has the highest ERA and even he’s at 3.74.
But on Sunday even that reliable bullpen wasn’t perfect. Rafael Soriano, the closer who’d blown just two saves all season, was tagged for a run in the ninth inning to give up a 4-3 lead. A walk sandwiched between two singles, the last one by Rickie Weeks up the middle, sent the game to the bottom of the ninth.
With two out and Rendon on first, Werth delivered to give Washington a victory on a day where sloppy defensive play, a bad start and a blown save should have consigned it to a loss. The Nats found a way to win anyway, took two of three from the Brewers, who led the NL Central at the All-Star break, and are now 18-10 since June 17.