PHILADELPHIA — From the on-deck circle at Citizens Bank Park, Jayson Werth had a panoramic view of his old house, the place he wrote his name into the history books as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies and earned his payday in Washington. Because he’s not theirs anymore, the Phillies fans boo him.
So it was that Werth stood in the on-deck circle in the ninth inning Wednesday night, at a critical point in a critical game for his Washington Nationals, picked up a ball that’d been fouled back and planned to toss it into the stands to a group of kids. He halted his motion, though, spotting a group of possibly-intoxicated men looming behind the kids, and rolled the ball into the Nationals’ dugout instead.
The boos cascaded through the ballpark.
They reached their crescendo as Werth stepped in to the batter’s box in a game hitting a new apex with runners on the corners and a once-robust Nationals lead cut to one. As they showered him with a mix of disdain and displeasure and cheered a brushback pitch, Werth delivered the long-awaited knockout punch.
An 8-4 victory — another win closer to clinching the National League East — became all-but a formality when Werth’s single bounced up the middle to score two important insurance runs. The fans who taunted him fell silent. Werth smacked his hands together at first base. In the on-deck circle, Bryce Harper tried to control himself.
“I was so excited for him, I wanted to jump up and down and scream,” Harper said. “The fans going crazy, booing him, telling him he [stinks] and whatnot, they don’t know what they’re missing. He’s an unbelievable ballplayer and he’s been clutch for us all year. He’s what gets us going.”
“I’ve played a lot of games here and I’m fairly aware of how the fans can be,” Werth said. “I mean, I’m not the first guy to get booed nor will I be the last. It’s just part of the game. It makes for exciting baseball.”
Werth doesn’t have demons in Philadelphia. He talks fondly of his days here and of what those ferocious Phillies teams were able to accomplish. But he’s become their villain.
With the help of someone who did have to overcome the ghosts of games past here — John Lannan — Werth and the Nationals took an important step Wednesday night. Citizens Bank Park had been the stage for so many undistinguished moments from Lannan’s major league career. Moments that happened in losing seasons, with Washington often playing doormat to dominant Philadelphia.
But Lannan stood on that same mound Wednesday night as yet another symbol of how the 2012 season has changed — for him, the Nationals and the Phillies.
“Any time you can come in here and get a win, it’s pretty satisfying,” Lannan said. “Especially when we’re in the position we’re in now.”
It was an imperative win, and it started with Lannan silencing his demons, staring his past nightmares right in the eye and forcing the Phillies to be the ones to blink. It was Lannan, boosted by three early homers and five runs of offense, and saved by three runs late, that helped bring the Nationals one step closer to their ultimate regular season goal.
But it is not a goal that will be reached easily. An uncharted season filled with one show of dominance after the next has given way to an excruciating march toward getting those elusive final victories. In their last 12 games, the Nationals are now 5-7. The Braves are 9-2 in that same span, shaving 4½ games off the Nationals’ division lead with seven games to play.
The Nationals didn’t exactly get out unscathed on Wednesday as a hand-wringing eighth inning by Tyler Clippard helped the Phillies chip away and turn what had been a blowout into a one-run game in the ninth. Clippard has pitched just two hitless innings this month but he buckled down when things had reached the breaking point and he struck out Kevin Frandsen to strand the Phillies’ tying and go-ahead runners on base.
Werth provided the important added cushion — important because, as manager Davey Johnson put it, “This is a scary club. Scary ballpark.” Drew Storen took care of the rest.
But they never would have had their opportunities to lock down the Nationals’ 94th win of the season were it not for Lannan’s early work. In his fifth major league start of the season, Lannan kept the Phillies at bay over 5⅓ innings. He allowed five hits, two runs, walked one and struck out three.
He gave the Nationals all they needed on a night when Kyle Kendrick was serving up home runs with regularity. As the Nationals took the field for afternoon batting practice, rain began to fall. The grounds crew rolled out the tarp before they’d had a chance to take a single swing. In the dugout, their manager shrugged. “Save ‘em for the game,” said Davey Johnson.
So they did. The Nationals had a 5-0 lead before Lannan came to the plate in the second inning. They used Citizens Bank Park for what it is, a place where the ball flies, and made up for their homerless series opener on Tuesday night.
First it was 19-year-old Bryce Harper, hitting the 20th of his rookie season into the left center field seats before many of the fans had settled into theirs. The first pitch he saw, and the sixth pitch Kendrick threw, put the Nationals up 2-0 early.
Ian Desmond opened the second with his 25th of the season and Kurt Suzuki followed two batters later with his fifth, a two-run shot that would give the Nationals just enough offense to hold off the Phillies’ late charge.
“I’ve always come [to Philadelphia] and thought I’ve pitched well, but some stuff didn’t go my way,” Lannan said. “But tonight I told myself I wasn’t going to let that kind of stuff happen. … I knew this was a big win for the team.”