Jayson Werth’s time with the Nationals traces back to when playoff baseball was nothing more than a fantasy in Washington. He arrived in 2011, just after Stephen Strasburg and before Bryce Harper, to snickers across the baseball industry. The consensus was he made a mistake signing with the Nationals, and the Nationals made a mistake committing $126 million over seven years to him.
Six years later, a 38-year-old Werth, now a grizzled veteran in the final year of that contract, stood in the back of the Nationals’ clubhouse drenched in alcohol with a beer in hand Sunday afternoon as his team celebrated its fourth National League East division title in six years. Those first three playoff teams didn’t survive the National League Division Series. Werth believes this fourth entry is better equipped for a deep playoff run than those previous three.
“You look at our team, our bench. We made great acquisitions, from getting Adam Lind in spring training to bringing over Howie Kendrick,” Werth said. “You bring in Ryan Madson, [Sean] Doolittle and [Brandon] Kintzler to fill up … the weakest part of our team and we did that. So this is the year that I feel like the organization made all the proper steps to ensure us that we’re going to have all the weapons we need in October. And I don’t know if I can say that for every other year.”
The depth and bullpen overhaul have helped the Nationals overcome injuries and sustain a double-digit lead in the National League East since July 17, the day before Madson and Doolittle joined the club in Los Angeles. The gap between them and the second-place Marlins stands at 20 games — the largest among baseball’s six divisions by 6½ games. They were the first team in the majors to clinch a division title, and while it’s their fourth in six years, it’s the first time the Nationals have claimed consecutive division crowns in franchise history.
“Dusty said something about that at the beginning of the year,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He said we’d gone one year on, one year off and wanted to make it a point to change things, to do what we did last year and continue that momentum. This is a great group of guys. We’ve had some injuries like everyone does. We battled through it. But it’s a fun team.”
The Nationals will spend the next three weeks hoping to get back Bryce Harper back and Werth going at the plate. They’ll be committed to the delicate balancing act of resting players while keeping them in sync. But they also still have something to play for with 19 games left before Game 1 of the NLDS on Oct. 6. While they’re surging, the Dodgers, who were recently threatening to finish with the most wins in baseball’s history, are nose-diving. They’ve lost 10 straight games and 15 of 16, allowing the Nationals to come within four games of overtaking Los Angeles for the baseball’s best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The teams will meet next weekend for a three-game series in Washington.
Reaching 100 wins is also in play. The Nationals, who won a club-record 98 games in 2012, would need to finish their remaining schedule at least 12-7 to reach that mark. That would be another milestone for an organization with perhaps its best chance at the biggest prize that has eluded it and its 68-year-old manager.
“We’ve had the best regular season record since I’ve been here, and I’m proud of that,” Werth said. “I got a lot to be proud of with this organization, this team and these guys. We’ve got a great group. With Dusty, I’ve said this since spring training, Dusty deserves a World Series. He’s first class. He’s a baseball guy. He’s been around forever. And the only thing left on his resume is a World Series, and I want to be a part of the group that does that for him.”