Werth deflects talk of his return to Citizens Bank Park

The Nationals' Jayson Werth, stealing third base against the Brewers in an April game, says he is trying to regain his timing at the plate. The former Phillie was hitting .242 entering Monday.
The Nationals' Jayson Werth, stealing third base against the Brewers in an April game, says he is trying to regain his timing at the plate. The former Phillie was hitting .242 entering Monday. (GREG FIUME / Getty Images)
Posted: May 03, 2011

WASHINGTON - On a dreary, drizzly Sunday morning, Jayson Werth moved through the pregame rituals in his familiar fist-bumping, hip-talking, wisecracking pose, a well-practiced baseball blend of insouciance and imperturbability.

Superfluous sunglasses, a low-riding hat, dark beard stubble, and his trademark goatee combined to obscure Werth's face. Leaning on a bat, his feet casually crossed, he chatted with ex-teammate Pat Burrell, pivoted slowly to peruse but not praise a well-struck ball, and howled like a wolf when a rehearsing anthem singer hit a sour note.

But Tuesday night, when the richest National makes his first post-Phillies appearance at Citizens Bank Park, something will be stirring beneath that familiar mask of studied cool.

It was, after all, the alchemy of four magical seasons as a Phillie that transformed his injury-tarnished career into free-agent gold. In Philadelphia, he became a feared hitter, an all-star, a shaggy-haired fan favorite.

Though the subject clearly has been on Werth's mind, he refused to address his homecoming during the extended weekend series with the Giants that ended Monday night, slapping away inquiries as easily as he steers outside pitches into right field.

"I'm not talking about it," he said when, after the Nationals' 5-2 victory on Sunday, a Philadelphia reporter raised the subject of his return. "I'll cover that stuff on Tuesday. Good try, though."

Not wanting to become a distraction for a Washington team that has plenty - the Nats learned on Saturday that they will be without all-star Ryan Zimmerman for at least six more weeks - Werth apparently suggested to teammates that they, too, deflect any questions about him and Philadelphia.

"Don't quote me, but I'm going to let him do all the talking about that," one Washington veteran said. "That's the way he wants it."

While he may be struggling to repress whatever feelings his return to Philadelphia will evoke, his frustrations bubbled to the surface briefly on two occasions during the San Francisco series.

On Saturday, he at first offered nothing but a grunted "no" to postgame questions about a loss in which the punchless Nationals somehow managed to parlay nine walks and three hit batsmen into one run.

The truculence hinted at the dichotomy created when Werth became Washington's highest-paid player. Normally wary of the media - he told a Sports Illustrated reporter he was "happy to be ignored" - his new status mandates that he instead be one of this team's go-to guys. If he could hide in Philadelphia, he can't in Washington.

Then on Sunday, when he was thrown out trying to stretch a first-inning single into a double, the annoyance flared, and he fired his helmet angrily into the dirt.

No matter how Phillies fans greet him, Werth will come back a little bruised - physically, by the 95 m.p.h. Brian Wilson fastball that hit him just beneath the left shoulder blade Saturday, and mentally, by the pressures he assumed in signing that seven-year, $126 million free-agent contract in December.

Even after three hits Sunday, he was batting just .242 with seven RBIs and 22 strikeouts in 99 at-bats. While his four home runs, 24 hits, and 43 total bases are all team highs, that's likely only because the team is next to last in the National League in hits and batting average (.229) and 13th in runs scored.

Werth has been working diligently for weeks in the cages beneath Nationals Park, hoping to recapture what he termed a case of vanished timing. On Sunday, against tough Giants righthander Matt Cain, he seemed to locate it.

The Nationals, whom manager Jim Riggleman termed "angry" after Saturday's defeat, held a pregame team meeting Sunday. Werth responded with three sharp singles and was robbed of a fourth when his hit-and-run bullet was gloved in shallow center by on-the-move shortstop Mike Fontenot.

"The biggest thing is April's over," Werth said Sunday. "We're looking forward to the rest of the season. We talked before the game, and we all decided that we were going to start playing baseball. We came out with a whole different mind-set . . . and it worked out for us."

Riggleman, the good-natured manager who never fails to point out what "a professional hitter" Werth is, said he saw progress Sunday.

"I think he's put a lot of work in, and he's getting closer," Riggleman said. "I hope [Sunday] was an indication of that."

Werth understands that his difficulties - and those of most of his lineup mates - were what kept the Nationals from the one thing this desperately striving franchise needed: an encouraging April start.

The Nationals' rotation and rebuilt bullpen have been much better than anticipated; their 3.52 ERA is sixth best in the NL. It was the bats that left them an uninspiring 12-14 in April.

Zimmerman, who had hoped the abdominal-muscle injury he suffered this spring would heal, instead will miss a minimum of six more weeks now that surgery has been prescribed. His absence has forced Riggleman to drop Werth a spot in the lineup to No. 3.

Cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche is hitting .189. Leftfielder Michael Morse, who won a job with huge preseason numbers, hasn't come close to matching them once the shooting started - .211 with one homer and nine RBIs.

In fact, it's a rookie second baseman, Danny Espinosa, who leads the Nats with 15 RBIs.

"We're just on the wrong side of it right now," Werth said. "The pitching has been outstanding. Those guys are working their tails off, going deep into games. Unfortunately, we're just not getting the hits to win the games right now.

"At some point something is going to click, and once it starts I feel like it's going to run for a while. It just hasn't lined up for us in April. Hopefully, May will be better."

In the meantime, Werth has fit in easily with the Nationals. Reliever Tyler Clippard said he'd already become "a force" in the clubhouse. The team's veterans have bonded with him, and the younger players, perhaps unconsciously, are aping his cool demeanor.

There's even a clubhouse worker who, since Werth's arrival, has grown his hair and beard exactly like the rightfielder's and, in his red Nationals cap, shirt and shorts, is the player's locker room doppelganger.

"The influence [Werth] has had in such a short time here is really amazing," Clippard said. "We were lucky to get him."

Just how strongly Philadelphians felt about losing him will be made clear Tuesday night.

Then and Now

Here is how Jayson Werth, the Phillies' former rightfielder, and Ben Francisco, the current rightfielder, compare:

Avg.   AB   R   H   HR   RBI   

Francisco .265   98   10   26   4   18   

*-Werth .242   99   15   24   4   7   

* – not including Monday's game.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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