Sep 26

Dustup with Pirates may have helped Nats find playoff mojo

If the injured, tired Washington Nationals were wondering where they might get that extra push for the postseason, they may have found it Sunday in Pittsburgh.curly w

A day after clinching the National League East and celebrating late into the night, the Nats were clearly a weary team. They wrapped up a nine-game, 10-day road trip, and approached the end of the 162-game grind with Stephen Strasburg out indefinitely, Daniel Murphy’s status uncertain, and Ryan Zimmerman hurting after being hit by a pitch on Saturday. This was a team that might have been looking at limping through the last week of the season and into the playoffs.

But all that might have changed in the third inning Sunday, when Pittsburgh’s Jung Ho Kang tried to deke Bryce Harper after the reigning National League MVP had laced what should have been a stand-up triple. The bush-league fake tag caused Harper to slide awkwardly into third and eventually leave the game with yet another injury that could cause uncertainty in October.

But it might well have been a wake-up call to the rest of the team, and the Nats responded with one of their gutsiest performances of the season. From the moment manager Dusty Baker emerged from the dugout to check on his star’s welfare to Mark Melancon’s final pitch, the Nats showed what they were made of.

AJ Cole’s initial reaction, a message pitch to Kang in the bottom of the inning, may have been predictable. But the message it really sent was from Baker to the Nats’ players, telling them, “I’ve got your backs.”

And when the benches cleared, who was at the forefront, telling the Pittsburgh players the Nats weren’t going to back down? Jayson Werth. If there was any question about who is the veteran leader of this ballclub, it was answered on this day.

After Kang had given the Pirates a 7-5 lead with a seventh-inning homer, it was Werth, already a postseason hero, who stepped to the plate to pinch hit in the eighth. Amid the boos of the Pittsburgh partisans, with a man on, Werth got ahead of former teammate Felipe Rivero, then belted the 2-1 pitch over the center field fence to tie the game at 7.

After staring each other down following the dustup over Harper’s injury, the two teams had traded punches on the field for the next four innings, with Werth delivering the knockout blow. The Pirates were staggering when Chris Heisey and Clint Robinson delivered RBI hits, and out cold when Pedro Severino walked with the bases loaded to make it 10-7.

The Pirates and Nats are not divisional rivals, but there is no love lost between them. No fan of either team will forget how Jose Tabita broke up Max Scherzer’s perfect game with two out in the ninth inning last June by leaning into a pitch, or how the Pirates edged the Nats 2-1 in an epic 18-inning game this season after Murphy had tied the game with a two-out home run in the bottom of the ninth. So despite the fact that they are all but gone from postseason contention, the Pirates are worthy opponents.

Some people may have expected the Nats to mail it in on Sunday, but with the Pirates menacing them, and the Los Angeles Dodgers breathing down their necks in the race for postseason seeding, the Nats might have actually found their mojo. And with a guy like Werth leading the charge, that mojo may well extend into October.