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Nats look to Teddy for inspiration
The quote came from Teddy Roosevelt. Of course it did. Teddy Roosevelt is practically the official president of the Washington Nationals.
Every home game during the fourth inning, the Nats stage the presidents’ race, a madcap sprint between a costumed George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy had lost 525 straight races before finally winning on the final day of the regular season, bringing to an end — we kid you not — a bipartisan “Let Teddy Win” campaign in the nation’s capital.
But the Roosevelt quote, recited before Thursday’s game by Nats infielder Mark DeRosa, that great orator from the University of Pennsylvania, had nothing to do with losing. The Nationals were not going to lose on this night, not when facing elimination in Game 4 of the division series.
No, they were going to produce the greatest victory in their eight-year history, and set up the possibility of an even more stirring triumph Friday night in Game 5.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” DeRosa said, channeling Roosevelt through a portable sound system he often uses as a “Karaoke/inspirational speech machine” before games. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
De Rosa, who is not on the Nats’ roster for the division series, said he didn’t choose the passage because of the team’s Teddy connection, explaining that the quote has been his “go-to” motivator since he was at Penn. And, to be perfectly honest, the Nats’ pregame clubhouse wasn’t completely serious; it never is.
Left-hander Gio Gonzalez, the Game 5 starter, said he was walking around, hyping up his teammates, playing AC/DC on the clubhouse stereo, chanting, “Let’s get to Game 5!” DeRosa jokingly dismissed Gonzalez’s contributions, calling him “our clown,” but Nats closer Drew Storen said the overall effect was typically wacky, typical Nats.
“AC/DC, Teddy Roosevelt and some random YouTube champion song … all the good vibes,” Storen said, laughing.
San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence still gets the most inspirational player of the 2012 postseason for his incredible “look into each other’s eyes!” pep talk in the dugout before Game 3 against the Cincinnati Reds. De Rosa, though, had a memorable closing line after he recited Roosevelt’s quote to his teammates, knowing that none of them probably had it heard before.
“You know who spoke those words?” De Rosa cried out. “Teddy f----- Roosevelt!”
With that, how could the Nationals lose?
By the time Nationals slugger Jayson Werth stepped to the plate to start the bottom of the ninth, the game already had taken several surprising turns.
Nats left-hander Ross Detwiler, facing a predominantly right-handed Cardinals lineup, had produced the best outing of any Washington starters in the series, allowing one unearned run in six innings. Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who had pitched so poorly in Game 2, made his first major-league relief appearance, throwing 97 mph, striking out the side in the seventh, energizing the crowd. Righty Tyler Clippard followed Zimmermann by striking out the side (with one walk) in the eighth. And righty Storen added two more K's in the ninth, giving the Nationals eight strikeouts out of the bullpen in three innings.
Now here came Werth to start the ninth. Werth, the $126 million free agent who had batted .232 in his first season with the Nats and missed nearly three months with a broken left wrist in his second. Werth, who had accepted without complaint becoming a 6-foot-5 leadoff man when the Nationals had no better option. Werth, who had seen 4.44 pitches per plate appearance in his career, best among active players in the regular season, according to STATS LLC.
Not that this was a favorable matchup. Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn had struck out Werth in both Games 1 and 2, and held him to 1 for 4 with a strikeout in their previous regular-season encounters. Lynn had just entered the game, following seven brilliant innings by right-hander Kyle Lohse and a scoreless eighth by right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Little did anyone know, an epic 13-pitch at-bat was about to unfold.
Werth took two called strikes to fall behind 0-2, then a curveball and fastball to even the count. He then fouled off four straight fastballs, three at 97 mph, one at 96. Lynn followed with two curveballs, one that Werth fouled off, another that he took to run the count to 3-2. At that point, Werth’s mindset changed.
“We faced him a lot over September, and in the series. So, I knew what he had,” Werth said. “But I think he threw a hook, 2-2, to get to 3-2, and I figured from then on, I wasn’t going to get off the heater. I fouled a couple of more off and finally got a pitch to hit.”
Watching from the on-deck circle, Nats rookie Bryce Harper prepared to bunt if Werth reached base. But another thought occurred to Harper, who is 1 for 18 in the series, as Werth kept fouling off pitches: Maybe Werth would go deep.
Watching from the dugout, watching Werth stay disciplined on Lynn’s breaking stuff, Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman thought the same thing.
Lynn, on the 13th pitch, finally missed a location. Werth got a 96-mph fastball down the middle and drilled a liner over the left-field wall.
“Everyone in the stadium knew what I was throwing there,” Lynn said. “You tip your cap to him. The guy … the guy can play and he beat me.”
The ballpark, so disappointed the day before during the Nats’ 8-0 defeat, erupted in joy and noise. Werth rounded third, tossed his helmet in the air to reveal his crazy long hair and caveman beard, and leaped onto home plate.
What’s that other thing Teddy Roosevelt once said? “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Zimmerman said. “I couldn’t be happier for him to do it in front of these fans. Jayson is not a very interactive person with the fans — which is not a bad thing. Not every athlete is.
“He keeps to himself. He’s even-keeled. Day in and day out, you’re going to get the same exact thing from Jayson. For a fan, that makes it hard to become a fan of him. Obviously he went through the rough year last year, being hurt this year, coming over with the big contract, a lot of people saying, ‘Why did you give him that much money?’ I don’t think the fans get to see how valuable he is to this team.”
Well, the fans on Thursday night saw Werth demonstrate his value in the only place that truly matters: on the field. His homer made the final score, 2-1 Nationals.
His homer gave the team a tomorrow, a Game 5.
And so it comes down to this, a matchup between two pitchers who are almost perfect symbols of their respective clubs.
Gonzalez, 27, is the upstart, a 21-game winner who is colorful and energetic. Zimmerman says, “I’ve never seen a happier person in my life.”
Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, 31, is the seasoned veteran, a postseason hero when St. Louis won the 2006 World Series, a bystander during the championship run in ’11 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Gonzalez wants redemption for his shaky start in Game 1, when he matched his career high with seven walks. Wainwright, who pitched well in Game 1, striking out 10, wants to extend the opportunity that he was denied a year ago.
“This is every pitcher’s dream, I would say, every competitor’s dream, to be in huge moments like this,” Wainwright said.
Wainwright does not figure to rattle; he was just 25 when he struck out his future St. Louis teammate, Carlos Beltran, for the final out in the Cardinals’ victory over the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Gonzalez, on the other hand, is excitable. Nats reliever Michael Gonzalez, who is not related to Gio and is one of the few Washington players with postseason experience, said Thursday night that he would try to settle his younger teammate before Game 5.
Gio knows he needs to be calmer this time. “I have to keep my composure and I have to keep my game face,” he said Thursday night. “But you know I’m excited. What these guys did showed me heart. I don’t want to let them down.”
The atmosphere will be electric — “that eruption that happened at the end of the game … that was one of the loudest I’ve heard,” Wainwright said — and the survivor will face the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, which begins Sunday night on FOX.
As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The worst of all fears is the fear of living.”
There can be no fear on Friday night. For the players, there will be no better time to be alive.
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