PHILADELPHIA — Jayson Werth insisted last year that he had come to Washington to win and win big, and a great portion of the baseball world scoffed. Werth had traded the Philadelphia Phillies’ mini-dynasty for a doormat, first place for last. The Nationals had lost 298 games the three previous seasons, and yet in spring 2011, he predicted a coming shift, saying, “I want to be part of the group that changes perception of baseball in Washington, D.C.”
It turns out he was right — sooner than he figured. So, just two years into his Washington tenure, does Werth get to stand up and yell, “I told you so?”
“I mean, that kind of speaks for itself,” Werth said. “I don’t think I have to say anything.”
Even as he spent three months healing from a broken wrist, Werth’s second season in Washington has delivered everything he hoped. He feels relaxed in the clubhouse and in the Virginia suburbs, where his family and two dogs live year-round. He is “much more comfortable in his own skin,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Werth returned sooner than expected from his wrist injury. He has made last season’s offensive struggles appear to be a blip.
Most important, the Nationals have won. The seven-year, $126 million contract Werth signed was of course a primary motivation to join Washington. But he also vowed he had come here because of his utmost confidence in management and ownership to produce a winner. Less than two years in, even after their current four-game skid, the Nationals have the best record in the major leagues.
“I didn’t know how fast it would take place,” Werth said Saturday, standing behind the batting cage about an hour before first pitch at Citizens Bank Park. “But after last season, we played so well in September and under Davey [Johnson] and everything, I wasn’t really sure how this year was going to go. I know originally, I thought Year 3 was going to be our year, you know, with [Stephen Strasburg] on the limit this year and everything. It’s not that surprising that it was this year, with the group of guys we’ve got, the talent. The direction the organization was inevitably going anyways, it’s not a surprise.”
Werth dashed away from his conversation, hopping across a green tarp and into the dirt inside the batting cage. The place he used to call home rose around him, blue seats and maroon and gray facades. His Nationals teammates milled outside the cage. The crack of a line drive off his black bat echoed throughout the place. A deep drive banged off the right-center field wall.
Werth ambled back out of the batting cage. His bird’s-nest beard and sleek sunglasses concealed his face. He restarted his thought.
“Again, it was kind of inevitable, whether it was this year or next,” Werth said. “I think Davey was a big help to that. I don’t see us in this position if [Jim] Riggleman is our manager. You got to have somebody at the top that’s brash, and that’s not afraid.”
Werth sprinted back into the cage. He sprayed more line drives, then walked back out, the thrill of this season still on his mind.
“Being on a first-place team again, any day you wake up in the morning and you’re in first place is a good day,” he said. “Whether you’re on the DL or not.”
The Nationals have attained their status even as others joined Werth on the disabled list. Werth mentioned Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina by name as the reason the Nationals had held steady while others were injured.
“It speaks volumes for those guys,” Werth said. “They can step in and produce like an everyday guy. There’s a lot of good teams out there that could be good teams, but they don’t have a bench. If they get hurt, they’re [finished].”
As Werth walked back to the plate for another round of swings, he did not name any names. It was not hard to guess a certain team he may have been referring to. The Phillies, his former team, tumbled this season without injured Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. They are playing better now, as evidenced by their weekend sweep of the Nationals, but a lack of depth sunk their season. They won 102 games without him last season, but with their stars shelved, maybe the Phillies could have used Werth?
“Just look at the Nats,” Werth said.
When Werth has played this season, the Nationals have gone 33-16, including 15-7 since he returned Aug. 2 from a broken wrist.
“He’s really turned this team on with his energy, and really given this team a lift, offensively and defensively, that we expected from him,” Rizzo said.
In an organization pushing through its first pennant race, Werth is one of four on the Nationals’ 25-man roster with postseason experience. Other than Werth, only Edwin Jackson has won a World Series ring.
“It’s kind of a calming influence,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Even as Werth struggled last year, teammates say his influence helped change the Nationals’ mind-set. Zimmerman said Werth assisted a young team in growing up.
“J-Dub brought a winning attitude,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “When you got a guy that’s come from 100-game winning seasons, and he comes in and he’s flipping out because you lost the 10th game of the year, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh. Maybe we should turn it up a little here.’ He expects to win. He comes in ready to go every single day. He’s definitely got a passion for beating the other team.”
Bryce Harper has touted Werth as a key mentor. In spring training, Werth “rented” the locker next to Harper’s, stuffing his clothes in an empty stall so Harper, a 19-year-old, would have no more space than any other rookie. During games, Zimmerman can hear Werth helping position Harper.
“He’s not afraid to tell Harp things when he does something wrong,” Zimmerman said. “He’s not like a dad. But he takes care of him.”
Werth also has made less subtle contributions. After his dismal 2011 season, when he hit .232 with a .718 OPS, Werth, in a 45-game sample, has returned to his career offensive norm. He’s batting .305, the best average of his career. He has a 130 OPS+, which would rank behind only his 2010 season. His power has been slow to return since he came back, as he has no homers in 79 at-bats. But he’s swatted liners to gaps, smacking eight doubles and a triple.
This spring, Werth predicted that enhanced comfort in his new surroundings would transfer to the field. Differences both small and large have mattered. He sleeps in his own bed, and he knows the Nationals’ video system. He has a daily routine. He loves his teammates.
“It was just different,” Werth said. “It’s kind of tough to explain, really. It just didn’t have a real good feel to it, you know? Baseball to me has always been feel. You go through the game, some days you feel good, some days you feel bad. To me, that’s part of it.
“Whatever. I don’t need to sit here and talk about it. I feel good. I feel comfortable. I’m in a good place. I love my team. I love my town.”