Maybe it's the innocence of youth. Only four players on their roster had played in a postseason game prior to this year. There is no maybe, however, about the fact that they are headed into a Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, TBS) against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to decide who advances to the NL Championship Series against the Giants.And the Nationals say they wouldn't have it any other way. "This is exciting; it is where we want to be," said reliever Tyler Clippard. "We were down, 2-1, against a veteran club, and now we go to Game 5. We couldn't ask for a better situation. Someone could say they'd like to sweep, but at the end of the day, this is a great spot to be in to win the series." It hasn't been easy to get to "this spot." The best-of-five series began in St. Louis on Sunday with the Nats scoring a pair of unearned runs on Tyler Moore's two-out pinch-hit single in the eighth inning for a 3-2 victory. After back-to-back eight-run losses in Games 2 and 3, Washington came up with a 2-1 victory in Game 4 on Thursday thanks to Jayson Werth's walk-off home run on the 13th pitch against Lance Lynn to open the bottom of the ninth. Honestly, the Nationals wouldn't have it any other way.
|10/11/2012||NLDS 3||Was.||Stl.||W 3-2||3|
|10/9/2012||NLDS 3||S.F.||Cin.||W 2-1||3|
|10/18/2004||NLCS 5||Hou.||Stl.||W 3-0||3|
|9/30/2003||NLDS 1||S.F.||Fla.||W 2-0||3|
|10/15/1999||NLCS 3||Atl.||NYM||W 1-0||3|
|10/3/1998||NLDS 3||S.D.||Hou.||W 2-1||3|
|10/15/1997||ALCS 6||Cle.||Bal.||W 1-0||3|
|10/21/1995||WS 1||Atl.||Cle.||W 3-2||3|
|10/5/1984||ALCS 3||Det.||K.C.||W 1-0||3|
|10/8/1966||WS 3||Bal.||L.A.||W 1-0||3|
|10/6/1921||WS 2||NYY||NYG||W 3-0||3|
|10/13/2001||ALDS 3||NYY||Oak.||W 1-0||2|
|9/30/1997||NLDS 1||Atl.||Hou.||W 2-1||2|
|10/6/1963||WS 4||L.A.||NYY||W 2-1||2|
|10/6/1948||WS 1||Bos.||Cle.||W 1-0||2|
|10/4/1944||WS 1||Stl.||Stl.||W 2-1||2|
|10/9/1974||ALCS 4||Oak.||Bal.||W 2-1||1|
|10/3/1947||WS 4||Bro.||NYY||W 3-2||1|
"Typical [Werth] at-bat," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That's why he is our leader. Been there. Done that."Werth, whose five previous postseason appearances (2004, '07-10) equaled the total for the other 24 players, had a couple of other big home runs that are a part of Nats lore. One came off his now teammate, Drew Storen, when Werth was with Philadelphia, and capped off a four-run ninth-inning rally on Sept. 19, 2010, with a two-run blast. After that season, he became the first mega-contract free agent to sign with Washington. Another was the last home run Werth hit before Thursday night, one of only five he hit in 81 games in an injury-limited 2012 season. It came after a lengthy rain delay, and led off the bottom of the ninth on Sept. 8. Although it was only an eight-pitch at-bat, and the home run only tied the score to set up a 7-6, 10-inning Nationals win, Desmond saw a striking resemblance. "He fouled off a 2-2 slider in that at-bat, just like this one, and then he locked in on the fastball," said Desmond. "Same thing he did [Thursday]." That night in September, only a thousand or so fans had hung around for the game to be resumed. This time, there was a sellout crowd of 44,392, the third largest in Nationals Park history. After all, when the fans have waited since 1933 for the return of postseason baseball to the city, what's the rush? The Nats didn't even clinch a spot in the postseason until their 1,281st game after their move from Montreal -- on Sept. 20. And it wasn't until their 1,292nd game representing Washington that they clinched the NL East title on Oct. 1. "The day I signed here, I went to a Capitals game, a hockey game, and the place was packed," said Werth. "Somebody said, 'Just a few short years ago, this place was empty.' So I knew that a winning ballclub would bring the fans, and here we are, two years later, and they're showing up and it's awesome."
Awesome because of the way Washington has gotten the job done. First, it claimed the NL East, beating out Philadelphia and Atlanta, who have combined to win 17 of the last 19 NL East titles.This may be new territory for the Nationals, but they aren't in awe. Veteran manager Davey Johnson played in five postseasons and is now managing in his sixth. "It's fun to see young players have that much energy," said Johnson. "You know, nobody was tired, and everybody was fired up. ... So it's going to be fun [Friday] night." And at the age of 69, there is no indication Johnson has lost his touch. It was a couple months ago that he decided to slip Werth into the leadoff role, where his 38 starts this season were four more than in his nine previous big league seasons combined. "[It's] funny -- if that switch wasn't made earlier in the season, [Werth] doesn't get that chance in the ninth," said Desmond. "If he's hitting fifth, we might still be playing." And it was a day earlier that Johnson decided Jordan Zimmermann, who gave up five runs in three innings of his Game 2 start, would be in the bullpen for Games 4 and 5, setting in motion the 1-2-3 punch the Nats threw at the Cards on Thursday night. Zimmermann, who had never pitched in relief in his big league career, took over for starter Ross Detwiler in the seventh inning of a 1-1 game, and struck out the side on 12 pitches. Then came a three-strikeout eighth inning from Clippard and a two-strikeout ninth inning by Storen. And then came Werth's home run. "This is something else," said Storen. "No need to swim against the current, just ride the wave." As long as this moment has been coming, after all, no sense for the Nationals to get in a hurry now.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.