Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth make a potent 1-2 punch

September 17, 2012

Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth form a disparate, atypical pairing atop the Washington Nationals lineup. Werth does not fit the standard mold of a leadoff hitter — a 6-foot-5 veteran on a $126 million contract who once slugged 36 home runs. Harper does not fit the standard mold of anything — a 19-year-old force of nature helping carry his team toward the postseason.

Big-ticket free agents are supposed to bat in the middle of the order, and teenagers are supposed to attend prom. Werth, 33, is the second-oldest position player on the team; Harper is easily the youngest. They cut an unconventional 1-2 figure, but still, together, they have been a perfect fit.

Werth shatters stereotypes about batting first and excels at reaching base, the one thing that truly matters. Harper pulled out of a wicked slump, showed renewed patience and again started battering pitchers. They push each other and they make the rest of the Nationals’ lineup as potent as possible.

“It’s not an orthodox type thing,” Werth said. “It’s not standard. It just makes sense to me.”

Harper and Werth, the Nationals’ punchless weekend in Atlanta notwithstanding, have helped give Washington one of the deepest, most dangerous lineups in the National League. In games Werth has led off, the Nationals are 15-8 while scoring five runs per game, even after the sweep in which they scored six total runs. Manager Davey Johnson put two of his best on-base hitters 1-2, and those hitters happen to be able to bang the ball off or over the wall, too.

“There’s no easy outs anywhere,” Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Two athletic guys at the top of the order. They can run the ball out of the ballpark at you, too. You don’t see that very often.”

Werth began the season hitting fifth or sixth most games, with Ian Desmond leading off. Werth broke his wrist in early May and missed three months, which pressed Johnson to move Desmond down in the order to add thump in the middle. In his place, Johnson moved Steve Lombardozzi to the leadoff spot.

Lombardozzi reached base more frequently than Desmond, and as he watched the Nationals play without him, Werth thought, “That’s the type of leadoff hitter we need.” In the middle of the lineup, Desmond could swing away and fulfill his potential as a power hitter — he has mashed 23 homers, one more than his previous career total over two-plus seasons.

Werth knew Lombardozzi would be relegated to the bench upon his return. Shortly before he returned in early August, Werth had a discussion with Johnson. “Just insert me in right there, at the top of the lineup,” he suggested. “I think we’re good.” Johnson — as he dubbed Werth, “a 6-foot-6 donkey who wants to lead off” — agreed.

“It just works,” Werth said. “Our lineup is really balanced. I always like guys to lead off that have high OBPs [on-base percentages]. It doesn’t make sense to me to put a guy at the top of the lineup just because he’s fast. Be fast at the bottom of the lineup. You don’t get on base, but you’re fast?”

As advertised, Werth has worked pitchers and reached base. Since he returned, Werth has punched up a .407 on-base percentage, eighth-best in baseball since the all-star break. He has seen 4.38 pitches per plate appearance this year, sixth in the majors.

At the time Werth came back, Harper had become mired in the first slump of his career. From the day after the all-star break through Aug. 1, Harper hit .189 with one home run. He had become less selective and prone to breaking pitches on the outside edge of the plate.

“He’s probably never had to make adjustments,” Johnson said. “But here, I mean, everybody since day one has been respecting his ability. They’ve tried to pitch him harder than anybody.”

Harper began to exaggerate his on-deck routine. Rather than swing his bat, he pushes it toward the ground, as if yanking on a rope, at three slightly different angles. “I don’t have any idea what he’s doing,” Johnson said. “But it’s working.”

The move reminds Harper to keep his hands tight to his body and bring the barrel of the bat to the zone in the most efficient path.

Once at the plate, one piece of Harper’s routine became more noticeable: He literally bites the part of his jersey covering his right shoulder. The mouthful of uniform forces him to keep his front shoulder square to the pitcher longer, which preserves more power in his swing and lets him reach pitches on the outer half of the plate.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harper said. “If I fly open, that’s when I struggle. If I keep in, that’s when I do well. I just try to keep that front side in and keep the knob to the baseball and drive through it.”

Since Aug. 2, Harper has terrorized opposing pitchers. He has hit .266, and 10 of his 19 home runs have come in those 41 games.

“Being able to control his over-aggressiveness and make adjustments,” Johnson said. “He learns if it’s not there, I can’t try to make it there. That’s part of him being overly aggressive and wanting to do something.”

Along with his own adjustments, Harper began playing alongside Werth again, usually batting behind him. When he arrived in the majors, Harper often cited Werth as a helpful influence. Now, he had a direct impact on Harper’s at-bats.

“Having a guy six or seven pitches every A-B lets me go through my routine on the deck circle, lets me see that guy a little bit more,” Harper said. “It just lets me calm down a little bit.”

Harper and Werth first met during spring training in 2011. Their interaction then was limited. Harper spent only a few weeks with the major leaguers before the Nationals sent him for a full year in the minors. Werth had just arrived after signing as a free agent. “He was kind of quiet the first year, I guess you could say. Not trying to do much,” Harper said. “He was trying to fit in with that kind of group.”

In spring this year, their relationship changed. Werth gave Harper tips on base running and playing the outfield, sharing secrets about opposing pitchers. They chat almost every inning as they run to their positions in the outfield. Late Friday night, in neighboring lockers, they were still breaking down the game as reporters entered the clubhouse.

“It’s always a lot of fun being around him,” Harper said. “He’s been an important role with this team, and important role with me.”

“He’s just trying to make me fit in with everybody else,” Harper added. “Really try to stay within myself, not get too big-headed or not get above the game or anything like that. He knows I’m going to go out there and bust my butt every single day, no matter what. I think that’s what he loves.”

From the start of this season, Werth has also given Harper a gentle initiation. In spring, he “rented” the vacant locker next to Harper’s, so Harper would not have any more space than a typical rookie. If Harper has felt more at ease because of Werth, it has not been his intention.

“I think I’ve been trying to do the opposite — not let him get too comfortable,” Werth said. “Not let him get comfortable at all. I want him uncomfortable. He plays better.

“I don’t know. I think we all, in our careers, have had older players that have helped us. It’s not like it’s a burden or anything. You’ve got a kid that’s got a lot of talent and has very little time in the minor leagues, no time in the big leagues, doesn’t know much about anything. But he can play. So anything I can do to be help him is going to help us.”

Werth spoke at his locker this weekend in the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field. As he finished his thought, Harper arrived in the clubhouse and walked to his locker, right next to Werth’s. He was wearing deep royal blue jeans. “Nice pants,” Werth said.

“Like I said,” Werth said, breaking into a smile, “I don’t know if making him comfortable is accurate.”

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