The 44,392 who arrived at Nationals Park in glorious October sunshine Thursday afternoon would head home in darkness. As Jayson Werth approached the batters box to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning shortly after 7 p.m., the last vestiges of sunlight were slipping across the Potomac, over the Blue Ridge Mountains and heading west. Werth's job, like that of his teammates, was to make sure that the St. Louis Cardinals would not be following the sun west out of National Airport later Thursday night.
Werth looked at two strikes called by home plate umpire Jim Joyce -- whose normally solid grasp of the strike zone eluded him on this night, particularly on pitches at the knees and on the outside corner to right-handed batters. Then, Werth took two balls. Then he fouled off the next six pitches. Then he took a pitch near the outside corner of the plate at the knees. Jim Joyce's hands stayed at his side, somehow. The 12th pitch of the at-bat was fouled away again.
At some point, the at-bat stopped being a competition between batter and pitcher and became an exercise, Werth slowly getting his timing back. He was already making better contact than most of his teammates had made on any Cardinals pitcher for the entire day, with the sole honorable exception of Adam LaRoche's home run.
The cumulative box score from Thursday's 2-1 Washington win in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS makes for grim reading. Nationals players appeared at the plate 28 different times. They recorded three hits and two walks. With the exception of the home runs, the Nationals didn't advance any runners past first base Thursday. The cumulative scoreboard after Werth's heroics now reads St. Louis 23, Washington 9.
And none of that matters, because Lance Lynn did what the Cardinals pitchers haven't done very much of in this series and threw a 96 mile-per-hour fastball over the middle of the plate. Werth did what the Nationals hitters haven't done very much of over the course of this series and squared the bat head onto the ball perfectly.
There wasn't any doubt. Matt Holliday took a couple of desultory trots back to give a polite look, but it was gone. The Cardinals bullpen reacted to the ball bouncing around behind them with comical nonchalance, especially contrasted to everyone else in the park, who, for the first time in roughly 28 hours, knew that the season would not end in the darkness of Thursday.
The list of Thursday night's heroes consists of six names: Werth (for obvious reasons), starter Ross Detwiler (who probably should have been in the postseason rotation ahead of Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson based on their respective regular seasons), Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann (who struck out the side in the seventh inning), Tyler Clippard (ditto in the eighth), Drew Storen (who retired the side in the ninth), and Ian Desmond (not only Washington's best offensive player in this series -- his 0-for-3 day dropped his average to .467 -- but the man who ranged into shallow left field to catch Matt Carpenter's fly ball which would have dropped into shallow left field, would have scored Pete Kozma, and would have ended Washington's season).
These six, along with Ryan Zimmerman and Tyler Moore, are the reasons that the Nationals have pushed this series to Friday night. All have either partially absolved themselves of blame should Game 5 not go well or (in the case of Zimmermann) achieved a partial measure of redemption.
There are others with work to do. Bryce Harper continued to build a case for Davey Johnson dropping him out of the two-hole by going 0-for-3 (1-for-18 in the series). Danny Espinosa added three more futile at-bats to his ledger, making him 1-for-12 in the four games. Michael Morse has not struggled as badly as his two teammates, but his at-bat in the seventh inning summed up too many Nats batters' approach at the plate. After a tiring Kyle Lohse had walked LaRoche on five pitches, Morse swung at the very first pitch and grounded into a textbook 5-4-3 double play.
It is fair to say that the Cardinals hitters have made the Nats pitchers work harder than vice versa. The most flagrant example of this Thursday was the four pitches that Lohse needed to get through the bottom of the fifth inning, followed by Holliday's eight-pitch at-bat to lead off the sixth, which ended in a ground out to second base. No wonder Detwiler left the game after throwing 104 pitches over six innings, while Lohse only threw 87 pitches over the seven innings that he worked.
It's hard to imagine that the habits of four playoff games will be suddenly broken in a fifth. The Nationals and their fans will have to hope that the grounders find holes and the pop-ups drop, while Werth, Zimmerman, and LaRoche run into a few more fastballs. If those things happen, and if Gio Gonzalez can match Detwiler's performance, then there will likely be another series beginning at Nationals Park Sunday night.
It would have been a letdown for Washington's first encounter with postseason baseball since the New Deal was the hottest topic in town to end the way Wednesday's Game 3 did: with a blowout loss and fans scuttling to the Metro during the seventh inning stretch. Thursday was the formal reintroduction of D.C. to playoff baseball, when the capital felt like the center of the sporting universe (for the first time since when? The Redskins' most recent Super Bowl title?) and, to quote Nick Hornby, "gathered outside the gates, waiting to hear the final score."
Jayson Werth sent them home happy Thursday night, and they will be happy for at least one more day. Then the sun will go down, and the world will stop again.