A 38-year-old man with hundreds of home runs to his name hit another seemingly insignificant homer Monday evening, but he was wholly unable to hold back his joy — if he had tried to hold it back at all. Jayson Werth is not known for filtering.
As the ball flew high and deep and nearly over all the seats in left, Werth tossed his bat into the air, turned to the dugout, hopped and pumped his fist as if it were October, not late August. The nearly three months he lost to a broken foot suffered June 3 left him horribly bored. It also left him with just one more regular season month — and one playoff push — guaranteed to his Washington Nationals career. Every night, every swing and every homer will mean a little more.
“It was great to be back tonight, just to be a part of this club. These guys have been playing so good, and I want to be part of the machine,” Werth said. “. . . I was excited — obviously, a little more emotional than usual. But whatever.”
Werth’s homer helped the Nationals to an 11-2 win over the Miami Marlins, their closest competition in the National League East. Each victory this week shrinks their magic number to clinch the division by two games. Monday’s win left it at 20, meaning any combination of 20 Nationals wins and Marlins losses will make the Nationals division champions for the second straight season.
Werth’s return overshadowed that of the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, another key emotional leader, right-hander Max Scherzer, who had not started since Aug. 13 because of an ailing neck. Scherzer allowed one run in seven innings, scattered five hits and struck out 10 — a typical Scherzer outing, which is exactly what the Nationals hoped to see.
Among the more emotional returns Monday was that of Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner — son of family patriarch Ted — who returned to Nationals Park for the first time since losing a leg to cancer this summer.
Mark Lerner has been a fixture in his seats near the Nationals’ dugout, just behind the home on-deck circle, since the team moved to Nationals Park in 2008. On Monday, he sat in a wheelchair, a little higher up, where Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, Screech the mascot and several others came over to welcome him home.
Werth also got a warm welcome — a standing ovation — in the second inning as he headed to the plate for his first at-bat since returning from the disabled list. He tipped his helmet to the crowd before stepping back in and grounding out to second base, which nobody in the stands seemed to mind. His value to these Nationals, whatever one thinks that is, has never been describable in statistics alone. Werth’s value down the stretch, for what might be his last playoff push with these Nationals, will likely transcend statistics, too.
The fourth-inning home run and the celebration that followed — one that might seem out of place in late August for a team with a lead like the Nationals’ — exemplified the things Werth brings that others cannot. So many Nationals veterans have honed stoicism, and for many of them, it works. But Werth has never felt a need to apologize for emotion, or any need to downplay what this season means to him. The Nationals’ emotional leader has returned.
“He hit that bomb, and old Grandpa looked over at the dugout and gave a big scream,” Scherzer said. “So you know he’s back.”
Werth also singled in the sixth after an 11-pitch at-bat and eventually ended up scoring when Howie Kendrick hit a bases-clearing triple under the normally reliable glove of Christian Yelich in center field.
Someday soon, when Bryce Harper returns, the Nationals will have to decide whether Kendrick or Werth starts in left field — and sitting Kendrick won’t be easy given he is hitting .348 since joining the Nationals. Those answers can come later. Monday was about renewal.
Kendrick’s triple sparked a six-run inning, the kind of outburst that was common for this offense before the injuries but has become scarce for it since. The Nationals scored more runs in that inning than they had in all but one of their previous nine games.
Meanwhile, Scherzer looked strong in his return from recurring neck stiffness that forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his Nationals career. His fastball touched 97 mph and sat at 95, which is Scherzer’s normal range.
He allowed a home run to Yelich and walked a few batters he might not normally. He yanked more fastballs past the outside corner of the plate than he usually does. But he still struck out at least 10 for the 14th time this season and 63rd time in his career. His ERA fell to 2.21, second best in baseball to Clayton Kershaw (2.04). Most importantly, he looked and said he was uninhibited by neck trouble.
“As long as I got my pillow and my neck exercises,” Scherzer said, “I’ll be fine.”
Scherzer was not missing from the rotation for long. Werth was out for what seemed to him like forever. The Nationals have them both back now.
Just as this team was starting to show the wear and tear of injuries and inexperience, Scherzer and Werth seemed to have brought a piece of the Nationals’ spring swagger with them. After the game, Manager Dusty Baker announced Trea Turner will likely return to the lineup Tuesday. The Nationals are starting to look like the Nationals again, just in time to enjoy one more push before October.