The singular career of Jayson Werth produced another extreme Saturday night, in the moment he hopped up the steps of the Washington Nationals’ dugout and thrust his fist in the air. The curtain call punctuated so much: a two-run homer, the fulcrum of the Nationals’ 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, his 1,000th hit and his ascent, at 34, back to the very top of baseball.
Werth had skied a first-pitch slider from Zach Miner over the left field fence at Nationals Park, the keystone in a five-run seventh inning. Nationals Park exulted as Werth circled the bases, and it would not fall silent until he emerged from the dugout.
Against Werth’s old team, the 56-60 Nationals did not act like a club with nothing to play for. The Nationals fell behind 4-0 after the second inning and chipped away against Cliff Lee before exploding against the Phillies’ bullpen. After Bryce Harper’s safety squeeze bunt tied the score, Werth’s blast pushed them ahead.
Starter Taylor Jordan composed himself after a disastrous second inning. Tanner Roark, promoted on Tuesday, held the Phillies at four runs with two scoreless innings that required 12 pitches. Rafael Soriano notched his 29th save. Ian Desmond reached base three times and ripped his 30th double. Washington won for the second straight night and shaved its deficit for the second wild card to eight games. It is not much, but it is, possibly, a start.
“The mood in the clubhouse got a lot better and I got a lot smarter again,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “But what a night Jayson had, huh?”
Afterward, Werth gave an interview on the field that echoed throughout the stadium. As he spoke, Harper snuck up from behind him and dumped a bucket of Gatorade on him. Harper giggled as he scurried away. Werth shot him a no-you-did-not-do-that glare.
“I’ll talk to Bryce about that when I get inside,” Werth said, a smile poking through his beard.
“You know what they say about payback,” Werth said later.
Werth’s homer on his 1,000th hit provided another memorable moment in a unique journey. How many players record the 1,000th hit of their career three years into a seven-year, $126 million deal? But then, Werth’s entire career is a study in the unexpected.
Booed his first season in Washington, Werth has won over Nationals Park fans. Doomed with an uncommon wrist injury early in his career, Werth would become a World Series hero and sign one of the richest contracts in baseball history. Sidelined for 81 games in 2012 with a broken wrist, Werth has been one of the best hitters in the major leagues. All of it crystallized as Werth raised his fist, showered in cheers.
“Any time you gain respect from the fans and from the city, it’s definitely a good thing,” Werth said. “I know that first season was tough for everybody — more so for myself than anyone else. Last year, with the [broken wrist], it’s been a tough road. But I’m excited about the future here in Washington, and I’m glad that the city and the fans can see what I’m all about. And I think the best is still yet to come.”
Werth still has a metal plate and eight screws in his left wrist, the residue from the surgery he underwent in May 2012 to repair a broken wrist. He wondered if his power would ever return. Still, when he came off the disabled list June 4, he told Johnson, “Don’t put me in the two-hole. I’m too strong.”
He felt confident because of adjustments he had made at the plate. Werth tilted his front his shoulder in his stance, which allowed for a more direct, violent swing path. He moved his hands farther from his body, which helped him drive pitches to center and right field.
“He’s in a better position, and his approach is outstanding,” Johnson said.
Since Werth returned from his strained hamstring, he has hit .354 with 13 homers in 58 games. Werth, the National League player of the month in July, is about 20 plate appearances shy of qualifying for batting leader boards. If he was qualified, though, Werth would rank fifth in the NL in batting average (.322), third in on-base percentage (.397) and fifth in slugging (.527).
“He’s absolutely raking right now,” Harper said. “I mean, I’m trying to touch his bat so I can get some hits in there. He’s doing an unbelievable job leading this team. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Early Saturday night, it seemed like he wouldn’t have much to celebrate. Jordan yielded a two-run homer to Darin Ruf in a four-run second inning. Lee had allowed more than four runs in a start only three times all season, and no team in baseball had hit worse against left-handed pitching than the Nationals.
Still, they slashed the deficit in the fourth as Desmond laced his 30th double of the season. They added another run in the sixth as Wilson Ramos, celebrating his 26th birthday, poked an RBI single to right to bring the Nationals to within a run.
Steve Lombardozzi led off the seventh with a pinch-hit walk off lefty Jake Diekman and moved to second on Denard Span’s bunt. The Nationals had clocked Diekman’s delivery at 1.7 seconds, long enough for Lombardozzi to swipe third base.
Ryan Zimmerman walked to bring Harper to the plate. Third base coach Trent Jewett flashed Harper the sign for a safety squeeze bunt. He took a first-pitch ball, and Jewett took the sign off. After an ugly hack at a slider, Jewett gave him the squeeze sign again. Harper popped up a slider, but it landed shy of second baseman Chase Utley as Lombardozzi scampered home with the tying run.
“I love it,” Harper said. “I think that’s great. Being able to get a run in and being able to tie things up for J-Dub was something we needed to do.”
After singling in his previous at-bat, Werth had retreated to the video room to watch film. Batting practice coach Ali Modami, a longtime confidant, mentioned Werth had recorded his 999th hit.
“I actually had no idea,” Werth said.
Miner entered the game and threw him a low slider. Werth scooped the ball over the left field fence. He jogged down the first base line, eyeing the ball as it fell into the second row, down the left field line.
“When you set out playing this game however many years ago, that was one benchmark you put on the list of things you want to accomplish,” Werth said. “So it was good.”