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HINGTON -- Each strikeout brought with it a little more noise, lifting a few more fans to their feet. The 44,392 at Nationals Park started off tame enough in Thursday's National League Division Series Game 4, rumbling through another playoff game but apparently keeping something in reserve.
The first real jolt came when Jordan Zimmermann entered in relief and struck out the side. An inning later, Tyler Clippard fanned three of the four batters he faced. Then Drew Storen whiffed the first two Cardinals to greet him in the ninth, and by that time, the ballpark was shaking. Red rally towels whirled. Thousands watched every pitch from their feet, erupting in unison when Jayson Werth ended things on a walk-off homer.
Picture the scene. Recall it, if you were there.
Now imagine what it will be like Friday.
Ryan Zimmerman called Game 4 the best nine innings he has ever experienced, complete with the wildest atmosphere to blanket Nationals Park. So the Nats figure to press that home-field advantage in Friday's Game 5, with a trip to the NL Championship Series on the line.
"It takes a lot to make grown men, professional athletes, excited like kids," Zimmerman said. "But there are certain moments where it's no holds barred."
Consider this one of them. Playoff baseball returned to Washington this week for the first time in 79 years, bringing with it the first- and third-biggest crowds in the history of Nationals Park. And those were for afternoon games in the middle of a work week.
First pitch for Game 5 is scheduled for 8:37 p.m. ET, smack in the middle of prime-time TV. Fans and players alike will be screaming loud, which is precisely why the Nationals worked so hard to win home-field advantage throughout October.
"It gives you energy," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "The crowd was unbelievable. The past two days, they were unbelievable. And as players, we feed off that."
In a scheduling quirk that was the byproduct of MLB's new dual Wild Card playoff format, the Nationals began postseason play in St. Louis despite finishing with the league's best overall record. The tradeoff was at the back end; rather than play Games 3 and 4 on the road and travel back home for Game 5, Washington was scheduled to play each of its final three NLDS games at home.
The Nats knew it would be an advantage should they go the distance, but perhaps even they did not understand how much. None of them had ever sniffed postseason play in this city, so they had little on which to base their guesses.
Werth and Drew Storen both recalled watching NHL playoff games across town, reveling in the electric atmosphere.
"And that was cool," Storen said. "But this was something."
Many of the players said it spurred them to do more. Zimmerman even recalled being on the other side of it in St. Louis, having to step out of the batter's box at times to take a deep breath and relax. The crowd, he knows, can be as much of a disadvantage for the visitors as it is an advantage for the home team.
Quantifiable it is not, but the Nationals do not need to measure it. With Game 5 on tap, they understand how large their home-field advantage will loom.
"I expect it to be a lot like it was the last two games," Zimmerman said. "[Wednesday] we really didn't give them too much to get riled up about. But tonight, they were great all night. From the first inning on, they were on their feet and making noise. That's huge. They should know how much that means to us."