Red-hot Werth powers Nationals to victory

Red-hot Werth powers Nationals to victory
August 11, 2013, 12:30 am
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Nats come-from-behind win is good, but need to keep winning

Jayson Werth has been an easy target for cynical baseball fans, both from within the District and around the sport, since signing a $126 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2011 season. That contract figure forever will be attached to Werth's name, and even his staunchest supporters will admit he'll never live up to that mammoth number.

Try for a moment, though, to ignore the money and focus simply on what Werth has done on the field for the Nationals, most notably over the last two seasons. His actual contributions have been immense.

"He's doing an unbelievable job leading this team," Bryce Harper said. "It's a lot of fun to watch, being able to see him get hits against unbelievable pitchers and seeing him do his thing."

Washington fans got an opportunity to shower Werth with some well-deserved praise Saturday night when the veteran right fielder reached a personal milestone and delivered the biggest blast of the Nationals' 8-5 victory over the Phillies all with one mighty swing. His two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh highlighted a five-run rally, putting the Nationals ahead for the first time in a game they once trailed 4-0, and represented the 1,000th hit of his career, to boot.

For that, the crowd of 32,676 coaxed Werth out of the dugout for a curtain call.

"Anytime you gain respect from the fans and from the city, it's definitely a good thing," he said. "I know that first season was tough for everybody, more so for myself than anyone else. But last year, with the injury, it's been a tough road. But I'm excited about the future here in Washington, and I'm glad that the city and the fans can see what I'm all about. I think the best is still yet to come."

Whether Werth, who turned 34 in May, still has better things in him down the road is debatable. Whether he has been valuable to the Nationals the last two seasons is not.

Combine his 2012 and 2013 numbers and he's one of the most-productive offensive players in baseball. In 166 total games, Werth is hitting .311 with 22 homers and 79 RBI. His .392 on-base percentage ranks eighth among all major leaguers with at least 680 plate appearances, and his .875 OPS ranks 18th.

That's a far cry from his debut season in D.C., when he hit .232 and drew the ire of fans.

"In '11, he was strictly [hitting to] right field," said manager Davey Johnson, who took over in the middle of that season. "Even balls in on him, he'd serve them to right. We talked after the 2011 season about going home, getting in a better position, getting stronger and coming back. And he did in '12, a much better year. This year, he had a little setback with the injury, but his approach has been pretty much from day one of spring training."

The Nationals have needed every bit of production they've gotten out of Werth since he returned from a strained hamstring in early June. While everyone else in the lineup has struggled at times, he has been a consistent force, having now reached base 102 times in his last 58 games.

They certainly needed his contributions on Saturday night, though they got them from plenty others as well in rallying from four runs down to win for the first time this year.

The comeback actually began with rookie Taylor Jordan, who gave up those four runs in the top of the second but showed veteran poise in bouncing back to put up three straight zeroes and keep the game within striking distance.

"You've just got to keep on trying," said Jordan, who will make at least one more start before the Nationals shut him down around 140 innings for the season. "It doesn't matter how many runs you've given up. As long as I'm still out there, I don't want them to get one more."

Fellow rookie Tanner Roark also did his part, coming out of the bullpen to retire all six batters he faced on 12 total pitches. That actually left him the pitcher of record once Werth homered and left the young right-hander to celebrate his first career win by night's end.

"Yeah, I realized it," Roark said when asked if he knew what Werth's homer meant personally for him. "Most important, we got the win. The team got the win."

The Nationals chipped away at Cliff Lee, scoring twice in the fourth (with Werth delivering an RBI single) and once in the sixth (with Werth scoring on Wilson Ramos' base hit). Then they blasted the Phillies' bullpen during a five-run seventh, one that featured both small ball and a big display of power.

Within that inning, Steve Lombardozzi boldly stole third base with one out, putting the tying runner 90 feet away. That set the stage for Harper to drive in a run in rare fashion: on a bunt.

Given the safety squeeze sign by Johnson with runners on the corners, Harper actually popped up his bunt but managed to drop it just in front of second baseman Chase Utley. Utley recorded the force out at second but couldn't complete the double play, allowing Lombardozzi to score the tying run.

"I love it," Harper said of his reaction to the bunt sign. "I think that's great. Being able to get a run in and being able to tie things up for J-Dub was something we needed to do. Getting something and laying it down was very crucial in that situation."

How would Werth grade the bunt? "Uh, S for surprising," he said. "But it worked out."

Not as well as what happened next. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel brought in reliever Zach Miner to face Werth, who promptly greeted the right-hander by blasting his first pitch into the left-field bleachers for the aforementioned homer.

Add Anthony Rendon's two-run single later in the inning, and the Nationals suddenly turned a 4-0 deficit into an 8-4 lead ... and eventually their second straight win over the Phillies.

Afterward, Harper doused Werth with a ceremonial Gatorade bath as the crowd continued to roar.

Nearly three years into his seven-year tenure here, Werth now is being showered with the kind of praise the Nationals hoped all along he'd deserve when he signed that mammoth contract.

"I love J-Dub," Harper said. "He's a leader on this team and one of the guys that really took me under his wing and really taught me the past two years. To be able to see him do that was pretty unbelievable. What an incredible teammate and person he is."