NEW YORK – On Tuesday night, when Jayson Werth plays against the team with which he became a star, a World Series champion and a very, very rich man, he knows what he can expect at Nationals Park. Busloads of his old fans will overrun his new home. They, being from Philadelphia, will probably boo him. He’s okay with that.
This is why: Werth can remember his first days in Philadelphia, back in 2007, before the Phillies won four straight National League East titles. He remembers the New York Mets fans who rode I-95 to Philadelphia and packed Citizens Bank Park. He remembers, too, when it stopped happening.
“Last year when we played the Mets, there weren’t any Mets fans in the seats,” Werth said. “They wouldn’t dare come down. I think four years from now, it’ll be the same way in Washington. Or sooner.”
What transpires the next three days, at some point, will become a rote occurrence. Over the next seven years, Werth should play against the Philadelphia Phillies 126 times as a member of the Washington Nationals. Now, though, nine games into Werth’s new life, it is still fresh enough to provide the dominant story line and, maybe, a spark within Werth.
“He’ll probably have a lot more energy Tuesday than he has had all year,” said Nationals pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, Werth’s teammate for two seasons in Philadelphia.
This weekend, Werth would not reveal that much. Saturday, he stood at his locker surrounded by reporters, one of them from Philadelphia, who peppered him with questions about his former team. Werth often says he lives in the moment and does not look ahead, not even three days.
“Why are we talking about Philly so much?” he asked.
The question that prompted his own question? Does Werth find himself looking at the Phillies’ box score? The answer: No.
“If I see something on ‘SportsCenter’ or a highlight or something, I’ll see what they’re doing,” Werth said. “But I’ve kind of closed the book on that time in my life. Although later on in life, I’ll probably open that book often and I’ll go back and sift through the memories. Right now, there’s enough to keep me occupied and pay attention to. It’s kind of insignificant to me what exactly is going on there.”
After Werth, upon request, ticked off some favorite memories from Philadelphia – the World Series parade, Stairs’s game-winning, pinch-hit home run in the playoffs, that time he stole home — he wondered aloud if there were any questions about his current team’s circumstances.
“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.
A day later, the comment still irked Werth. He is fiercely adamant that the Nationals’ reputation, colored by 298 losses in three seasons, will transform. Since he signed his contract this winter, Werth has emphasized his desire to “help change the perception of baseball in Washington.” That includes eradicating the sentiment that two wins counts as a streak.
“I didn’t appreciate it at all,” Werth said Sunday. “That’s more of the old type thing, what used to be here, what used to happen here. It’s not going on here anymore. I know it’s going to take some time to kind of shift and change some minds. I have no problem with that. I just think that we have a team that the town can respect and come out and support.”
With attention on him, Werth shifted the focus from his reunion with the Phillies to his plans to close the competitive chasm that exists between them and the Nationals. It was tough for him to compare now and 2007, the last time he was on a new team, but he outlined what he sees as similarities between these Nationals and those Phillies — both, he said, had young talent with high ceilings and strong clubhouse chemistry.
Werth understands he is at the start of a process. But he also believes the Nationals are better than what they’ve been given credit for. He drew a parallel between the Nationals and last year’s San Diego Padres, who rode a stellar bullpen to 90 wins. “We’ve got some things going for us,” he said. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people. I’ve been saying it for a while.”
If the Nationals are to start rising in the standings this year, beating the 7-2 Phillies would be a good place to start. (It would also help if Werth ditched his mini-slump — after a fast start, a 1-for-15 stretch has dropped Werth’s slash line to .200/.333/.371.) Over the past four seasons, the Nationals are 21-51 against the Phillies, a 47-win pace over 162 games.
“We’ve got to narrow that gap,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s hard to pick up those 30 games in one year. We’re not ready to say that yet with the pitching, because they’ve put together an extraordinary pitching staff. We do feel man-for-man, we’ve closed the gap a little bit. That’s just talk until you actually do close the gap.”
Werth allowed that he is looking forward to seeing friends on the Phillies, former teammates he won 25 postseason games with. When he left Philadelphia in free agency, he wanted to stay in the NL East. “It’s not like I was leaving never to be seen again,” Werth said.
His first experience will include thousands of unwelcome visitors from the north. He can already envision the day he looks into the stands at a visiting ballpark and sees Nationals fans. He can also remember when he started seeing Phillies fans flock to opposing stadium, and how good that felt.
“It’s awesome,” Werth said. “You got to win. You got to win for that to happen. And that can change. I’ve seen it happen.”