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Nationals’ Jayson Werth has much to prove in season’s final months

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Philadelphia — Jayson Werth knew he deserved more playing time, and he walked into his manager’s office carrying the evidence. This was the middle of 2007, Werth’s first season with the Philadelphia Phillies — before he became an October hero, before he finished eighth in the Most Valuable Player balloting and before he signed the richest contract in the history of the Washington Nationals.

Werth felt he had not gained Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel’s trust — he was not, he said, one of “Charlie’s guys.” He wanted to play more. Manuel wanted him to hit right-handed pitching better. Werth found a different kind of solution.

He plunked down a highlight tape on Manuel’s desk. The footage, collected from his last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was two years old because he had missed the entire 2006 season with a wrist injury. Werth believed he was still the player on film, drilling line drives and smashing home runs. He told Manuel to watch.

“I wanted to see it,” Manuel said this weekend. “I always wanted to see what he thought was his good swings and his good at-bats. Yeah, it was neat.”

Recalling the story of the highlight tape, Werth said, “I definitely feel it made a difference in my career.” He also feels the tape represents something about the rest of it.

With one quarter remaining of his first season in Washington, Werth has yet to show he will be the player the Nationals hoped for. He feels he possesses the both ability to still be an elite player and the self-confidence to say: “I’m still that same guy. I’m still that same player.”

The black-and-white truths of the first 119 games, he knows, have told a different story. Even after a recent surge, Werth has a 97 OPS+, a metric that combines a player’s ability to slug and reach base on a scale that uses 100 as league average. He has a .330 on-base percentage and a .383 slugging percentage.

His batting average, now .225, has been the measure most commonly held against Werth.

“It’s an important stat to the public I think, to the fans,” Werth said. “I don’t put a whole lot of weight in average. I’m looking forward to see that movie that comes out in a couple weeks.”

Werth meant “Moneyball,” based on the book that created a sea change in how ballplayers are evaluated. He puts far more stock in on-base and slugging percentages.

“Even if the average doesn’t get there this year,” Werth said, “I’ll be able to look at my numbers and feel good about it at the end of the year, if things go the way I think they’re going to go the next two months.”

Werth’s final stat line this year is less important than whether he can recapture the swing that helped him become an elite hitter. The Nationals will be sending Werth to right field for the next six years. Has he fundamentally changed? Or has this season been an extended slump he can break?

“I think he’s going through a hard time,” Manuel said. “I also think it’s an adjustment period for him. Each individual is different. It took Jayson a little while to really feel very comfortable and relaxed with our club. I think he’s going to be fine, because he’s very talented.”

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, from afar, noticed the same thing early this season. Werth entered the season under scrutiny, which only increased when Ryan Zimmerman landed on the disabled less than two weeks into the season.

“Sometimes coming over to a new ballclub, you put too much on your shoulders,” Johnson said. “I think he did that coming over here early, and kind of got himself messed up a little bit, trying to do too much.”

Werth said he “hit the reset button” at the all-star break, and since then he has hit .260/.366/.448. He still has not found the feel he wants at the plate, but he feels closer now than at any point this season. He discovered a glitch in his timing, and is still working to eliminate it.

“I don’t feel great about it, but I feel better,” Werth said. “It’s one of those things that somehow got in there. It’s a daily battle to not let it happen. I’m working in the right direction. What’s tough is, once things get engraved, they get hard to reverse.”

Manuel still has the highlight tape Werth gave him in his office, a remnant of the last time Werth faced so many doubts about his ability. Werth has two months left this season to answer them, to start shaping the next six seasons of his career and the Nationals’ future.

“I’m still very capable,” Werth said. “I feel like I’ve got that in me. I can do that. Maybe not this year. That comes with being settled in and being locked. I’ve been given the length to get settled and hang out.”

© The Washington Post Company