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STEVE DESHAZO: Nationals get some grit by gutting it out

WASHINGTON—Breaking new ground often requires stepping outside one’s comfort zone. The Washington Nationals are a talented young baseball team with no previous playoff résumé, and they seemed destined for a quick and painful exit from their postseason début.

Until a couple of guys took one for the team and kept that team afloat.

Jayson Werth wasn’t a leadoff hitter when he played in Philadelphia. At 6 feet 5 with a scraggly beard, he doesn’t look like one, and his salary ($18 million per year) is usually reserved for cleanup men.

But he readily agreed to bat first after returning from a broken wrist, and his epic 13-pitch at-bat off Lance Lynn Thursday ended with a ninth-inning walkoff home run that gave the Nationals new life and a 2–1 victory over St. Louis in Game 4 of their National League Division Series.

Those heroics might not have been possible if not for Jordan Zimmermann’s first major league relief appearance, a stellar seventh inning that marked a bit of redemption after his dreadful Game 2 start Monday.

Striking out the side in a 1–1 pitcher’s duel energized the crowd—as well as the usually stoic Zimmermann, who left the field with an uncharacteristic fist pump.

“I told him, ‘Now you’ll have to be a bullpen guy and grow a goatee,’” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman quipped. “I feel good for him to go out there after his first game and do so well.”

If you’ve forgotten (and Zimmermann hasn’t), he allowed the Cardinals five runs and seven hits in just three innings in Monday’s 12–4 loss, arguably his worst outing of the year in his first turn on baseball’s biggest stage. But when he arrived at Nationals Park Thursday, he was told not to throw his normal between-starts side session, because it was all hands on deck in an elimination game.

Zimmermann had never come out of the pen in 82 previous big-league appearances, and did so only three times in the minors—once, he said, when a big-leaguer was making a limited rehab start. He wasn’t sure how to prepare or warm up, so he consulted career relievers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Zimmermann said, “but I said, ‘I’m ready when you call me. It was crazy—45,000 people get you pumped up and gets your adrenaline rolling. I don’t usually show emotion, but I showed it out there.”

He also showed the command that was missing Monday. “He was electric,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said, “and to show that kind of enthusiasm that he never does—it got me fired up.”

Clippard and Storen each followed with a scoreless inning (striking out five between them), setting the stage for Werth.

There probably hasn’t been a more polarizing National than Werth, who fell out of favor with the team’s fan base after batting just .232 in the first year of his seven-year, $126 million contract in 2011. Then he broke his wrist in early May diving for a sinking liner and missed 81 games. He batted a team-high .300, but his power numbers (five homers, 31 RBIs) suffered. Toss in his appearance and his surly on-field persona, and it’s not hard to see why he hasn’t endeared himself to fans.

But he’s one of the few Nationals with postseason experience (including a 2008 World Series ring with the Phillies). And he’s been a role model and confidant for 19-year-old Bryce Harper, showing him the ropes. Then he showed the rest of the Nationals’ postseason neophytes how to win a playoff game, fouling off eight of Lynn’s pitches before driving the 13th into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

After Wednesday’s discouraging 8–0 Game 3 loss, Werth virtually guaranteed a win Thursday. After Game 4, he may never have to pay for a drink again (although he can certainly afford to).

“That’s Jayson,” Zimmerman said. “I’m glad the fans got to see that. Obviously, he had a rough year last year, and he was hurt this year. I don’t think the fans realize how good a player he is. For him to have a game like this, in front of the fans and in this atmosphere, was great.

“He’s invaluable to this team in the clubhouse and what he does for us, the way he interacts with the players. Jayson is not a friendly guy on the baseball field, but the stuff he does day to day, the way he grinds out every single at-bat. That’s what a lot of us learned from him. A lot of us have never been through this.”

They have now.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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