The loss that sent the Nationals back below .500 — incidentally, their 1,000th game since baseball returned to Washington — included the dual hallmarks of their first month: strong starting pitching and nonexistent offense.
Livan Hernandez allowed three runs in 61
3 innings while pitching around 10 hits, but the Nationals’ offense against Cole Hamels, who threw a five-hitter, consisted entirely of Michael Morse’s solo homer in the seventh. Werth went 0 for 3 with a walk, lowering his average this year to .226. The Phillies have beaten the Nationals 54 times in their past 76 meetings.
But the memory that will last for Werth and for the 45,695 who came to watch his return happened in Werth’s first at-bat. By the end, Werth had turned into an enemy of the people here, once and for all until he retires. He can live with that. “Hopefully, the fans will remember the good times,” Werth said before the game, “even if it’s just for one at-bat.”
After the initial onslaught of boos, a few cheers pierced the din while Werth strode into the batter’s box. Werth, a man apt to do the unexpected, stepped backward, removed his helmet, held it up and circled it over his head.
For a moment, the fans set aside the seven-year, $126 million contract Werth signed this winter and remembered the World Series title he helped the Phillies win in 2008. As Werth tipped his cap, the nastiest fans in sports gave Werth a standing ovation.
“It’s an atmosphere like no other place,” Werth said. “The fans welcomed me back, and I was very grateful. I’ll remember that for the rest of my career. That meant a lot. It really did. It was something that I’ll definitely remember for a long time. From here on out, whatever happens, I’ll definitely always remember that first at-bat.”
When Werth jogged to right field, the fans in the bleachers greeted him with more boos and more derisive signs. The biggest read, “Werthless: You bad mouthed the Phils. now we’re bad-mouthing you. Boooooo.” Before he played warm-up catch with center fielder Jerry Hairston, as boos showered over him, Werth took off his cap and waved it. Again, cheers overtook boos.
Before the game, Werth visited with members of the grounds crew and chatted with security guards, people he once saw every day. While he walked in for his turn during batting practice, a few fans behind the dugout yelled, “We miss you, Jayson!” and “Good luck this year!” Werth is typically oblivious during his pregame routine. When he saw them, he smiled and waved.
He understood not every fan would be so friendly. Beforehand, some Nationals joked they should send Andrew Melnick, a clubhouse attendant who bears resemblance to Werth, to right field dressed in Werth’s uniform.
When the opportunity arose, most of the fans turned the “mutual respect” Werth spoke about before the game into one-way derision. The place shook in the third inning when Werth just missed a leaping catch at the right field wall, a deep drive that turned into the first triple of Hamels’s career. He scored the Phillies’ first run when Jimmy Rollins stroked a two-out single.
They hollered when Werth had trouble digging a ball out of the corner in the fifth, which helped Rollins scoot to third for a triple of his own. They cheered when Werth made his three outs — the first of which would have been a double if not for a diving stop by Placido Polanco at third — and hardly hid their disappointment when he did not make a mistake. Werth’s nifty catch in the right field corner to end the fifth inning drew an audible groan.
In the late innings, the fans behind Werth serenaded him with chants, some of them with words very much fit for the Philadelphia bleachers, but not for print. “There was a little bit of everything going on,” Werth said afterward with a smile. At one point, he turned and glared, pressed his brim between his fingers and waved his glove at them.
Hamels and the Nationals’ continued offensive futility sent those fans home happy. Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, walked only one batter and struck out six. Nationals hitters raved about his ability to spot all of his pitches for strikes. The Nationals have not been providing the stiffest offensive challenge, having averaged 2.8 runs in their past nine games.
“We’re going to be fine,” catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. “We can all hit here.”