In his nightly fight to break his slump, Jayson Werth seemed to make some progress last night. He struck out in his first at-bat, frozen by a slider from Matt Garza. He hit an RBI single in his second, not sharply struck out but well placed, and he hit to the right side, which by itself is a step in the right direction. His worst problem, even more so than strikeouts, which have always been a part of his game, has been rolling over and hitting grounders to the left side. In his last at-bat he grounded out with the go-ahead run on third base. But he hit it hard, and to the right side.
Werth has been working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein on fixing himself and regaining his timing. But maybe no one in the Nationals’ clubhouse knows Werth’s swing as well as Matt Stairs, who played with Werth for two seasons in Philadelphia. Werth credits Stairs with helping him make a key adjustment – lowering his hands – in 2009 that led to a second-half home run binge. That was the year he hit 36. Since Stairs has history with Werth, I asked Stairs yesterday what he’s seeing out of his teammate.
“His work habits haven’t changed any,” Stairs said. “He’s still coming to the ballpark every day to play hard. He is lost hitting right now. But it happens. I think a lot of people make a lot more of it because the contract he’s making. When you sign that kind of contract, you’re not supposed to struggle. And we’re human. It’s going to happen. You lose your timing, and you’re going to feel like crap hitting. It takes a while to get back. When your mechanics get messed up, it’ll take quite a while.”
The last couple days, Stairs said, Werth has taken steps toward returning to his old swing and approach, staying back and driving hits to right-center field. Werth has experimented this season with a toe-tap and a high leg kick to start his swing. “Now he’s getting back to his old stance,” Stairs said.
A crucial aspect, in Stairs’s eyes, is the way Werth lands on his front foot when he strides. Werth has been landing hard on his front foot, which has affected his balance – you can see him lunging at a lot of pitches, which contributes to rolling balls to the left side.
“He has to get back on his front foot smooth again when he lands,” Stairs said. “When he lands on his front foot smooth, everything is fine. He’s comfortable in his stance. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
And, Stairs said, it will happen. The Nationals have compiled a record over .500 even with a minimal contribution from Werth. He may be struggling now, and in the broadest since he is closer to the end of his prime than the thick of it. But a player with his recent track record, history says, won’t stay in such a deep funk for so long.
“It’s going to pretty to watch,” Stairs said. “Some people are going to have to pay.”