VIERA, Fla. — Jayson Werth learned a lesson this winter about his new home city, one any freshly minted Washingtonian could relate to. One wrong turn, and you could wind up anywhere.
Three days before spring training, Werth was making the daily drive from his house in suburban Virginia to work out at Nationals Park. “I zigged when I should have zagged,” he recalled. Werth peered through his windshield and found himself next to another tall, bearded figure who was reared in Springfield, Ill., before he came to D.C.
“I had to at least go say hi,” Werth said.
He slammed the brakes, parked illegally in front of the Lincoln Memorial and sprinted up the marble steps. Werth gazed up at Lincoln, awed by the scope — an accidental, only-in-D.C. epiphany.
“I was just taken aback at the utter size of the thing,” Werth said. “I was just thinking, ‘This is really cool. This is really cool.’ ”
When Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals last winter, he spoke most fondly about his newfound ability to settle in one place. This winter, he became one of only three Nationals players who live in the area year-round, moving his family into a home outside the District.
Werth chafes at the criticism he received for his disappointing 2011 season and loathes the notion that it defines his career. He believes establishing a home in the city he plays will be one of the factors that leads to a rebound in his second season in Washington.
“I’m still coming to understand what it means,” Werth said. “I think it’ll mean even more as times goes on. Just from a mental standpoint, a feel standpoint, it feels great. Instead of going to an apartment in a couple weeks and having to rent furniture, set up another rental, I get to sleep in my own bed.”
Last season, Werth lived in a rental home while a construction company remodeled his spread in Virginia. He moved his family in this winter. Werth attended two Capitals games at Verizon Center, but he never explored the city like he thought he would. He has a taste for history — he called himself “the last remaining member of the Bull Moose Party” last season — and looks forward to touring museums.
Before they reach free agency and teams control their rights, ballplayers live an unsettled lifestyle, bouncing from city to city, apartments to offseason homes. They have means that disqualify them from sympathy, but still, Werth appreciated the small touches a home provided. He spent a lot of time in his yard. For the first time, he owned a dog.
“It may not mean a whole lot to people,” Werth said. “Maybe it’s not a big deal. Before you spend half a season in hotel, the other half in an apartment or some kind of rental, eating out a lot, you may not have a sense for how important that it is to live where you play.”
It could also make a difference in his career. Werth had never before worked out with a trainer. This winter, he lifted weights with Steve Lombardozzi and Ryan Zimmerman at Nationals Park under strength coach John Philbin’s watch. Werth gained almost 20 pounds and arrived at camp with four pounds more muscle than most seasons.
Werth is counting the enhanced comfort to help him bounce back from 2011, when he hit .232 with a .330 on-base and a .389 slugging percentage, miles short of the expectations his contract carried. Werth dismisses the notion that pressure affected him. He says he never found his proper swing path, and bad mechanical habits followed.
The flaws in his swing became most evident against left-handed pitching. Before he arrived in Washington, Werth hit .292 against southpaws in his career. Last year, Werth batted .184 against left-handers, the same pitchers he had built his career on mashing. Only three right-handed hitters in the majors had a lower batting average against left-handed pitching.
“It was very telling to me, and right on plane with where the flaw in my swing was,” Werth said. “If you look over the course of my career, I’ve been successful against lefties. Knowing what I know about my swing and knowing where I was, I was not surprised by the outcome as much. I knew what I was susceptible to. I knew where I was.
“If I can get back to doing what’s made me successful against lefties, it bodes well for me having a good year. I feel like I’ve worked hard at those changes. Sometimes, you get into a bad habit, it’s hard to get out of.”
Werth declined to discuss the specifics of his swing and the changes he made, believing the technical breakdown could only be misinterpreted. But he also expressed confidence in the end result.
“I do feel like it was an easy fix,” Werth said. “That doesn’t always translate into great numbers. But I feel confident about this season and this team and where I’m at and what I’ve done. Last year is just one year. I got six more years on this contract, and I plan on playing after this contract. I’ll look back and 2011 will be a fart in the wind.”
He will have to resist a truth as old as baseball. Werth has reached a stage, entering his age 33 season, at which regression overtakes improvement. In the 20 years prior to 2011, 37 players in their age 32 season produced a .725 on-base plus slugging percentage or lower (like Werth’s.718) over a full season. Only three of them — Ron Gant, Gary Gaetti and Aubrey Huff — ever again posted a single-season OPS of .800 or better.
The signs of Werth’s revival keep surfacing, though. This spring Werth has four home runs and three doubles in 47 at-bats.
Spring stats often tell lies, but even in batting practice, coaches and Manager Davey Johnson have noticed a different hitter. He has shown a greater willingness to hack at first-pitch fastballs. He swings with more conviction. The ball makes a louder, truer sound launching off his bat.
“He’s been on everything,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “He’s shown this year he’s much more comfortable in the box. No matter how you dissect it, where he is this year is where he wants to be.”
Werth, more than anything, feels at home. He will remain in Washington at least six years, long enough to not get lost on the roads anymore.
When he finished his meeting with Lincoln, Werth raced back down the steps to make sure his car would not be towed. His emotions surged. He sped off, bound for the ballpark in the middle of the city he calls home, the moment logged in a special place in his memory.
“A guy from Springfield made good in this city,” Werth said, “and they built him a monument.”