Jayson Werth debuts for Nationals

March 31, 2011

Of all the factors Jayson Werth could have cited in his debut with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, he chose the lights. Not the limited real estate near the right field foul pole or the uncooperative caroms off the scoreboard. Those were secondary for the Nationals’ slick-fielding superstar, who came to the club after signing a seven-year free agent contract worth $126 million, the most Washington has paid out.

Werth said the illumination system around the roof is aligned differently than light arrays in most of the stadiums where he has played.

In the sixth inning, Werth had to adjust to a ball off the bat of Atlanta’s leadoff hitter Martin Prado that was falling fast. It was at that point, Werth said after the game, that he noticed the curious lighting configuration.

The ball eventually settled into Werth’s glove roughly 11 / 2 feet before hitting the ground, but not before he struggled to pick it up among the lights. It was a catch a less graceful or experienced outfielder easily could have muffed. One inning later, Werth made a sliding catch on shortstop Alex Gonzalez’s shot to right.

“Werth was fine,” Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He played a good ballgame. A very good defensive ballgame.”

It was not Werth’s first time in right field. He was, in fact, in the same spot on opening day last season, but then he was a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, now one of his principal rivals in the National League East.

“It takes some getting used to, but I’ve played here enough to know,” Werth said. “Now that it’s my home, I’ll start to learn here after a few games.”

Werth had his share of activity in right field in the Nationals’ 2-0 loss to the Braves, which featured 52 / 3 strong innings from starter Derek Lowe that included six strikeouts.

In the first inning, Atlanta’s Brian McCann delivered a blooper to short right-center, and Werth charged hard as Chipper Jones headed home from second.

Werth overran the play a bit, and Jones scored, although even if he had been able to field it cleanly, the Braves’ likely Hall of Famer had such a good jump that it would have made no difference.

Werth’s value to the club is, of course, tied as much to hitting and a winning presence in the locker room as it is to helping pitchers when balls are carrying to right field. Last season, Werth batted .296 with a league-leading 46 doubles to go along with 27 homers, 85 RBI and a career-high 106 runs.

Slugger Adam Dunn’s departure in the offseason left a gaping power void in the Nationals’ lineup, but Riggleman is batting Werth second in part to ensure more at-bats and to make best use of his speed.

Werth has not hit more than 36 homers or driven in more than 99 runs in his big league career, but he has stolen 20 bases in two of the past three seasons.

With Lowe on his game and the Braves’ bullpen unrelenting, the lifetime .272 hitter went 1 for 4 with a strikeout hitting behind promising young shortstop Ian Desmond and in front of franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

“Derek was very, very good today,” Zimmerman said, “and we still worked him into some counts and made him throw some pitches early. That’s what we’re going to do all year.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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