Phillies' Werth raised to be intense competitor

Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth. His grandfather and uncle were major-leaguers, and his mother was an Olympic trials sprinter.
Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth. His grandfather and uncle were major-leaguers, and his mother was an Olympic trials sprinter.
Posted: April 19, 2009

Eighth grader Jayson Werth had been playing bad basketball, and his mother, Kim, issued a challenge before a game: If you don't score at least 20 points, and if your team doesn't win, there will be consequences.

Werth scored about 30 points, his team won and the consequences never needed to be specified. The Phillies rightfielder is accustomed to pressure - applied by him, by a loving and intense mother, and lately by Philadelphia baseball fans. He will need to draw on those experiences now, as the Phillies' hitter whose success or failure is most crucial to the team's season.

After beginning the 2008 season in a platoon with Geoff Jenkins, Werth, 29, opens this year in a much more prominent role, asked to replace Pat Burrell's righthanded power and bat behind cleanup hitter Ryan Howard.

Hitting mostly second and sixth last year, Werth enjoyed a long-awaited career breakthrough, playing 134 games, batting .273 with a .363 on-base percentage and contributing 24 home runs. The Phillies rewarded him with a two-year, $10 million contract extension this January.

If Werth remains healthy and continues to show power and plate discipline, the sight of a Chase Utley-Howard-Werth stretch of the Phillies lineup will cause anxiety for opposing pitchers and complicate their managers' bullpen moves. If not, and if lefthanded Raul Ibanez is forced to move from sixth to fifth in the batting order, the Phillies will be significantly more vulnerable to lefty pitching.

Is Werth, who batted fifth only 14 times last year and has suffered numerous injuries, up to the challenge? Two key figures in his baseball development, Werth's mother and athletic role model, Kim Werth, and Phillies senior adviser Pat Gillick, say that he is.

Kim Werth's athletic experience lends her credibility. A sprinter who competed in the 1976 Olympic trials and saw her career shortened by injuries, Kim transferred her competitive intensity to Jayson. The daughter of longtime major-leaguer Dick "Ducky" Schofield and sister of former big-leaguer Dick Schofield, Kim threw batting practice to Jayson when her son was 3 years old and always pushed him to maximize his talent. "At an early age, I was expected to play hard and take whatever I was doing seriously," Werth said.

Kim recalled with a laugh the night her son responded to threats of punishment by leading his junior high school basketball team to victory. "He did awesome that night," she said. "Jayson is someone who takes challenges very seriously and has always known how to rise to them."

Gillick was general manager of the Baltimore Orioles when the team drafted Werth as a catcher in the first round of the 1997 amateur draft. Nearly 10 years later, after the Los Angeles Dodgers declined to offer a contract to the injured Werth, Gillick brought the converted outfielder to Philadelphia.

The longtime executive said that while the pressure of batting fifth on a defending champion team would affect many players, Werth is not vulnerable to the stress. "There is a danger of that," he said. "With this guy, I don't think so. He doesn't sit and dwell over where he's hitting in the lineup. I think [after last season's success] he is feeling comfortable and confident that he can do the job. He's relaxed at the plate now."

Gillick saw Werth's development slowed by several factors: changes of position and organizations and frequent injuries. The Orioles traded Werth to Toronto in 2000, and the Blue Jays sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. While with the Dodgers, Werth suffered the most serious of several injuries that stalled his emergence. In 2005, during the first game of spring training, then-Florida pitcher A.J. Burnett hit Werth in the left wrist with a pitch, breaking a bone and costing Werth most of the next two seasons.

Last year, he spent time on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle, and he missed several days during this year's spring training with shoulder and groin tweaks. These maladies have left Werth with a reputation for being injury-prone, but he considers them mere bad luck. The outfielder said he expects to remain healthy and welcomes the challenge of playing a crucial role in the Phillies lineup.

"Hitting behind Ryan Howard is definitely pressure," he said. "But if I didn't like that, I'd be working nine-to-five behind a desk."


 

Read Andy Martino's Phillies Blog, The Phillies Zone, at http://go.philly.com/sports.

Blog Response of the Week

Posted by BarrryMoscow 08:18 PM, 04/13/2009

Story about Harry the Person. In 1982, my friend's father retired, and he went on a cruise with his wife to celebrate. Harry Kalas was on the cruise, and they had a chance to socialize with him like dozens of other fans. Within a week of returning, my friend's father died suddenly from a heart attack. Harry learned about his passing and took the time to attend the wake to pay his respects to the widow and her family. These folks had been strangers to him a few weeks before. It was a gesture that was greatly appreciated and unique in this era of the inflated ego. Harry Kalas, you are the Man. You will always be remembered by all fans for your love of the game and true humanity.


Contact staff writer Andy Martino at 215-854-4874 or amartino@phillynews.com.

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