PHILADELPHIA — On a team loaded with young star power, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond have emerged as the most vocal leaders inside a clubhouse that this season has been far more tense than joyful. Werth, the veteran with World Series experience, and Desmond, the mature-beyond-his-years shortstop, spoke late Tuesday night about the need for this team to stop putting pressure on itself, establish its own identity and show up Wednesday ready to "eat somebody's face."
It's one thing to talk about it. It's quite another to go out and actually do it, making the exploits of Werth and Desmond at Citizens Bank Park on this night particularly impressive.
With their teammates completely silenced all evening by Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, Werth and Desmond delivered three clutch hits late, with Werth driving in the Nationals' first run in the seventh, then the game-tying run in the ninth and Desmond capping it off with the 11th-inning grand slam that gave his team a captivating 6-2 victory that might well have been this club's best win of the season.
"We got lucky. We stole this one," Werth said. "It was one of those games that you need if you're going to go on to win the division. You need a bunch of wins like this."
Wins have come in anything but bunches for the Nationals this season, and for nearly nine innings on Wednesday, they offered little reason to believe they were going to win this one. Down 2-0 only minutes into the game after Michael Young clubbed a first-inning homer off Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals lineup accomplished next-to-nothing against Kendrick (two hits in 7 2/3 innings).
Gonzalez, though, did his part to keep the deficit minimal, bouncing back from that early home run and not surrendering another hit (while striking out 11) before he departed after the seventh. Tyler Clippard, Ian Krol and Drew Storen kept the run of dominant pitching intact, combining with Gonzalez to record 29 consecutive outs without allowing a hit, and at least giving their teammates an opportunity to rally late.
"That's what we told [Gonzalez]: That's all they get," catcher Kurt Suzuki said of the mindset following the early home run. "We didn't mean that's all the hits they get. But that's kind of how he took it, I guess."
Great pitching or not, the Nationals still found themselves down to their final out, needing Werth to deliver a clutch hit off Jonathan Papelbon to avoid a three-game sweep, a four-game losing streak, a record three games under .500 for the first time all season and sole possession of third place for the first time as well.
And then Werth came through in the big spot, sending a two-out, RBI single to left, bringing home Denard Span and leaving this game tied as boos rained down from the stands.
Papelbon, of course, had already blown a save two nights earlier, surrendering Chad Tracy's game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth. And he pitched Tuesday night, recording the save in Philadelphia's 4-2 win. Pitching for the third straight night against the Nationals, perhaps the advantage finally swung to the guys in the batter's box.
"We had a sense," Werth said. "We had a sense that we could get to him. He's tough. He really is. But definitely seeing him last night helped."
Desmond actually had a chance to drive in the go-ahead run right there, but he followed up Werth's RBI single with a three-pitch strikeout, slamming his bat and helmet to the ground after failing to come through in that spot.
"After the at-bat off Papelbon," Desmond said, "I was thinking, god, just give me another chance."
He got it two innings later. With the bases loaded and one out, Desmond stepped up to face Michael Stutes. He again swung hard and missed at the first pitch, then was called for a check-swing on a slider outside of the strike zone. Down in the count 0-2, Desmond reminded himself he had to shorten his swing, something that never comes easily to him.
"He just wants to do something so bad, and he's so dang strong, he just can't help himself," manager Davey Johnson said. "Guys come over and say: 'Does this guy swing this hard all the time?' I say: 'Yeah, he doesn't know any other way.'"
Desmond, though, finally did prove he can cut down on his swing. After taking a borderline, 1-2 fastball that was called a ball by plate umpire Alfonso Marquez and drew plenty of chirping from the Phillies dugout, Desmond crushed Stutes' 2-2 slider into the left-field bleachers.
It was his first career grand slam, the first by any Nationals hitter this year, and it happened because his swing changed over the course of the game.
"I don't think it does. I know it does," Desmond said. "I can feel it. That's just part of being a player, as opposed to be on the other side. You've got to make adjustments. You can't just continue to do the same things over and over. You've got to adjust."
As Citizens Bank Park emptied faster than the Miami Heat's arena in the final minute of Game 6 of The Finals, the Nationals dugout roared with delight, a rare moment of joy in a season that hasn't offered much opportunity for that kind of emotional release.
"That's like how I remember it from last year," Suzuki said. "It was pretty exciting and awesome. Everybody was excited."
There's no point trying to gauge whether this dramatic victory will have any carryover effect for the Nationals. Too many times this year they've failed to turn one positive development into actual positive momentum.
But, if nothing else, this come-from-behind victory allowed everyone in the Nationals clubhouse to breathe easy for a change, to enjoy a late bus ride back to D.C. and to at least ponder the possibility that something important happened on this night.
"We keep saying we've got a long way to go, but at the same time, we need to start winning ballgames and being a championship team," Werth said. "Hopefully, this is a start and we can build on this."