"They gave [Jayson Werth] quite an applause, really, and he accepted it, of course. Everything was fine. They definitely have a warm spot in their heart for Jayson, cause he played good here." - Phillies' Skipper Charlie Manuel on Werth's first AB in Citizens Bank on MLB Network Radio.
After Jayson Werth went 3 for 4 in last Sunday's game against the San Francisco Giants, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked if the work the Nationals' right fielder was doing to turn things around at the plate after a month of April in which he hit .221 (21 for 95) with a .321 OBP and a .421 SLG, was finally paying off. "I think he's put a lot of work in, and he's getting closer," Riggleman said, "as he said, 'I'm getting close,' and maybe today was an indication of that." Unlike Nats' first baseman Adam LaRoche, a notoriously slow starter, Werth's traditionally started the season fairly strong, putting up a .261/.355/.470 slash line in the month of April over the course of his nine-year MLB career.
Last year Werth came out of the gate strong with a .325/.405/.584 April, but with Ryan Zimmerman out of the Nats' lineup for all but eight games and LaRoche and Michael Morse off to slow starts as well (as are most of the Nats, who have a combined .226/.301/.349 slash so far this season) it's not too surprising that Werth's not putting up the same numbers he did for a Phillies team that was 18-12 after 30 games last year to the Nationals 14-16 following last night's loss.
"He's doing a lot of good things on the field. Like a lot of our players, hasn't totally hit his stride yet, but working very hard and we're luck to have him," Jim Riggleman said at another point last weekend when asked about the early returns on the significant investment the Nationals made in the former Philadelphia Phillies' outfielder. When the Phillies first signed Werth to a 1-year/$850,000 contract in the winter of 2006, Pat Gillick, then GM and Vice President described the then-27-year-old Werth, who was coming off a season spent on the DL recovering from wrist surgery, as, "'...a young outfielder with a combination of power and speed," and, "tremendous athleticism." Four seasons later, Werth, who helped Philadelphia make the postseason every year he was there, and played a big role in the '08 World Series championship, was described by D.C. GM Mike Rizzo as a, "a two-way player, a guy who excels offensively, defensively, baserunning and exhibits five tools," who would be, "a center piece of our ballclub on the field and in the clubhouse."
Werth and the other veterans added this winter have changed the attitude in the Nationals' clubhouse already. 23-year-old infielder Danny Espinosa, in his first full season with the Nats this year, described the differences this year in a recent MLB Network Radio interview:
"[Werth] brings the winning attitude. A young guy like myself, Desmond, Drew Storen, we've never been on a team that's won. There's a lot of guys on this team that are young that have never been with a winning organization, so for him to bring an attitude from a winning organization to let everyone know that losing is not acceptable and just to win two or three in a row [isn't] good enough, he lets us know that it's not acceptable, and there's more that can be done so that we can do better."
Werth's attempted to change the public face of the Nationals as well, bristling at times when members of the media, often from Philadelphia, have questioned his decision to leave the NL East powerhouse Phillies for a Nationals team that's finished out of fifth only once (4th!) in the six seasons since baseball returned to the nation's capital. One such exchange was captured by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore for an article entitled, "Werth set to face his former club",
"'Nice winning streak,' one television reporter offered.
'Two?' Werth asked. 'Is that a streak?'
'For the Nationals,' the reporter replied, 'it is.'
'I don’t like your tone,' Werth said."
That exchange took place before the Phillies' first visit to the nation's capital in 2011. Werth went 3 for 11 in that series with a double and HR, helping the Nats win game one before they dropped the second and third games to the Phillies. The series with the Phillies this week gave Werth an opportunity to interact with those Philly fans who hadn't traveled south to D.C. to see the series in early April. In front of the Citizens Bank crowd, Werth's 1 for 7 with a walk, single and three K's thus far. While his first few at bats were spectacles, the crowd alternately booing and saluting their former outfielder, by the time he came up late in last night's game, it was just another opposing hitter at the plate. When he took second (defensive indifference) in a 7-1 game there were some boos, where once there might have been applause for a player who never stops hustling.
Werth knew well what he was getting himself into, comparing the Nationals now to the Phillies he joined before the 2007 season. Werth's endeared himself to the DC Faithful with his mix of attitude and relentless aggression, but there have been hints for some who've watched the last few games that the attachment to the Phillies is not yet broken. Werth himself has said in the last few days that there are memories here which he'll cherish long after his career is over. But he's a National now. A struggling player on a struggling squad that's managed to stay around .500 a month into the season. What better way to break from the past than to help his new team start competing against their NL East rivals from Philadelphia?
Washington's 1-4 against Philadelphia this year after losing 12 of 18 last season and 15 of 18 in 2009. Holding yourself up against a roster that's made four-straight playoff appearances might not be fair, but the Nationals, as Werth told WTOP's Craig Heist after the first game, as quoted in an article entitled, "Werth working hard to bring Philly pulse to D.C.," would love to capture some of what the Phillies have.
"'We want what they have,' Werth told the WTOP reporter, "'I don't think there is any doubt about that. That was one of the things about going to Washington, I was very adamant about. Turning that atmosphere in that stadium maybe not into what's going on here, because I am not sure you can replicate this anywhere, but it would be nice to get that going in the right direction and have something similar.'"
Maybe it's time Werth started leading by example, he's changed the attitude behind the scenes, instilling a confidence in the team that's been absent in seasons past. If he can start turning things around at the plate, maybe the Nationals will follow. Ryan Zimmerman's six weeks away, there's no waiting for him. While Werth may ultimately be the sort of complementary player he was in Philadelphia when Bryce Harper's up and part of a lineup with Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond, Zim's out for now, Harper's still a few years away, Espinosa's a rookie and Desmond's struggling to find his footing in his second full season.
Jayson Werth is the man in D.C. now. He's Mike Rizzo's "center piece" for now. Figuring things out at the plate and helping the Nationals beat the Phillies and Roy Halladay tonight would be a great way to start turning things around on the field for a team that's shown it's willing to fight 30 games into the season. Werth's already influencing the attitude of the Nats' roster. Now it's time to lead on field.