Nats exceeding expectations, but waiting for Werth to do his part
The Nationals' eight-game winning streak came to an end on Sunday
Werth went 0 for 4 to drop his season BA to .232 and his June average to .155
Washington was criticized for signing Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract
WASHINGTON -- With three consecutive series victories, the Washington Nationals have finally shown some signs of life. Now they're waiting for Jayson Werth, their $126 million outfielder with the neatly-trimmed beard, to do the same.
Washington's eight-game winning streak came to an end on Sunday with a 7-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Nationals Park during which Werth went 0 for 4 to drop his season average to .232 and his June average to .155.
This weekend, Werth said that he feels the expectations that go with a big-money contract, but that he's not going to panic, even though his average is 64 points lower than what he hit for the Philadelphia Phillies last season. He says it's just baseball.
"I'm disappointed in the way I've played, but it's part of the game,'' Werth says. "I'm not going to grade myself until the season's over. There are normal ups and downs in a season. Besides, there's more going on here than just my batting average.''
That's true. The Nationals are finally getting some hitting to go with some of the best pitching and defense in the National League. They've had double-digit hit totals in seven of their last 10 games. Until Sunday, when Tom Gorzelanny got hit hard in his first game back from the disabled list, Nationals starters had given up two runs or fewer in 14 of 18 games.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is back after missing 58 games with a torn stomach muscle. Rookie Danny Espinosa has 13 home runs. Michael Morse, the new first baseman after Adam LaRoche went down for the season with a shoulder injury, has 10 home runs in 26 games.
Now the Nationals need Werth, their rightfielder, to contribute like he did last season for the Phillies, when he hit an NL-leading 46 doubles to go with 27 home runs.
Werth's signing, to a seven-year deal, represents the second phase of the Nationals' plan. The first was scouting and developing a foundation of prospects. "I like it here, and am looking forward to my tenure here,'' Werth says. "The vision that management had is coming true. You can see it. The Lerners gave me a length of contract with the idea that it's going to take some time.
"We need a little patience. The horses are in the barn. We just need to mature and win consistently.''
"Jayson's average could be higher, but he's doing fine,'' Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's run the bases well, played good defense and given us clubhouse leadership.''
Werth, 32, says he's more of a second-half hitter, which is partially true. He does have a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, but not by much -- .276/.376/.479 after the All-Star break compared to .260/.352/.471 before it -- and he also has more home runs and RBIs in the first half than the second. He's adjusting to a new city, team and new position in the order -- leadoff. "The baseball is the same, but everything else is different,'' Werth says. "There's a dynamic of change, but it's not the reason I'm not hitting well.''
Werth says that he has not been comfortable at the plate. Like one of his boyhood heroes, the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr., Werth says that he's constantly tinkering with his stance.
"Cal would go through dozens of stances during the season and he'd change on a whim,'' Werth says. "I've always been like that. I still do it. Hitting is feel, and you can't lock in until you feel comfortable. So, you make changes. You tinker. Not every day, but from time to time.''
There have been plenty of changes in Werth's stance: He has tried open and closed stances. He ha moved his hands up and down the bat. Sometimes he has lifted his front knee and other times not. He has started his stride by tapping his front foot off his back. He has leaned back and bent forward. "I'll get it figured out,'' he says.
Nationals batting coach Rick Eckstein says that most hitters stick to one approach, but Werth is unique because he's "extremely athletic and has an exceptional mind.''
Nationals manager Jim Riggleman says that Werth is the ideal No. 2 hitter. Werth was hitting in the middle or the order, but when the team ran needed a leadoff hitter, Werth moved there, something he hasn't done since high school.
"I think I led the National League in pitches per at-bat [he's currently tied with the Dodgers' Jamey Carroll at 4.29], and I've gotten a lot of two-strike hits,'' Werth says. "I feel comfortable with two strikes.
"It's important to take as many pitches as possible because it is gaining information about the pitcher. Sometimes you start 0-2 and end up with a walk. You've made a pitcher throw seven or eight more pitches and now you're on first base. That's not easy for a pitcher.''
Werth says that he has heard the theories that he hit in Philadelphia because he was a complementary player on a team that included Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, and that he's not a good enough hitter to lead a team.
"In baseball, I understand how that assumption can be made, but I don't think it's a fair assumption in my case,'' Werth says. "My problem hasn't been because someone different is hitting behind me. I've been inconsistent.''
Morse, who gave up his uniform No. 28 after Werth asked for the number in his contract negotiations, says that Werth's leadership has been invaluable in the clubhouse. "He brings a winning attitude,'' Morse says. "He may be off to a slow start; you'd never know it by watching him. He's a great guy to have around.''
Espinosa says Werth's work ethic rubs off. "He's unselfish. He doesn't worry about his statistics, only winning. He knows that if we win, the stats will be there.''
There has been at least one rocky moment of frustration for Werth. On the final day of a 1-7 road trip last month, Werth told reporters that changes need to be made, but when asked, he wouldn't go into specifics.
The comment fueled speculation that Werth wasn't happy with Rizzo or Riggleman, who called Werth into his office for a meeting to discuss it. Werth assured Riggleman that he wasn't referring to management, only the culture of winning in Washington.
Werth said that reporters "unfairly characterized'' his comments, and because of that he understood why Riggleman wanted to meet. "But there was no need to have a clear-the-air meeting, because I didn't say anything that necessitated that,'' Werth says. "The interpretation was not what I meant. Words were put into my mouth.''
So, why didn't Werth just clarify his comments in Milwaukee? In retrospect, he said that was probably what he should have done.
"I could have, but it was after a loss. We had taken a beating on the trip, and a moment of frustration was shining through. But it was nothing against Jim. I've known him since we were with the Dodgers. I was talking the losing perception in Washington. That's tough to change.''
At the time, Riggleman said the trip and confusion was a tough time for the Nationals. On Sunday he said, "It seems like a lifetime ago. It's a long season. There's frustration and things get said. Some of it is accurate and some of it is out of context. That's way in the past. Everything's fine.''
Werth played on four division champions and two World Series teams in Philadelphia. Last offseason, he had three possibilities: He could have stayed in Philadelphia, even though the Phillies' offer was "the lightest.'' Another was to go to Boston and deal with label of "failure'' if the Red Sox didn't win the World Series, or go to Washington and be a cornerstone of a franchise that had its last winning season in 2003 as the Montreal Expos.
Werth says the priorities were length of contract and ability to win, not a city's lifestyle. "In baseball, your life always gets uprooted, so the city wasn't that big of an issue.''
Playing for the Red Sox was tempting because his grandfather, Dick (Ducky) Schofield, played two of his 19 seasons for Boston. "He calls my mom and tells her that I'm a good player,'' Werth says. "He doesn't hand out compliments, so that means something.
"I knew my grandfather played there and I heard all the stories. And Fenway Park was always one of my favorite places.''
But when the Nationals laid out their rebuilding plan and offered a seventh year on the contract, it didn't take Werth long to decide.
"I don't know what the future is, but I compare it here to like it was when I got to Philadelphia in '07,'' Werth says. "Philadelphia wasn't the same place it is now. I think we have the ability to do that here.''
Mel Antonen is a baseball reporter in Washington, D.C. He is a baseball analyst for Sirius-XM Radio.