Tuesday, April 12, 2011 10:01 p.m.
Updated at 11:53 p.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEOS
By Mark Zuckerman
The Nationals signed Jayson Werth over the winter and asked the 126 million right fielder not to carry this team on his shoulders but to share the load with the franchise's other core players, most notably Ryan Zimmerman.
Well, with Zimmerman on the disabled list for at least the next two weeks, the load most definitely is being handed over to Werth. A club that has struggled to score runs in bunches so far this season must be able to count on its richest player to produce when it counts.
So the fact Werth delivered Tuesday night -- homering, doubling, scoring twice and drawing a walk to lead the Nationals to a 7-4 victory -- can't be understated. That he happened it do it in his first game against his former Phillies teammates was merely icing on the cake.
"That's not easy," second baseman Danny Espinosa said, "to go against your old team and have the great night he had."
No, but Werth sure made it look easy. You'd never know he entered this game in an 0-for-10 mini-slump, or that he was playing in front of a surprisingly hostile crowd in his home ballpark, a product of all the Phillies fans who made the trip down I-95 and booed their former star every time he touched the ball.
"I don't know if it was unexpected or not," he said of the rude welcome from the visiting fans. "I was kind of waiting for it. But once I got it, I thought it was kind of funny."
Since the day he walked into Nationals Park in December and signed the 14th-largest contract in baseball history, Werth has looked very comfortable both in a curly W cap and in his own skin. This is a player who oozes confidence and understands his role in D.C.
He doesn't have to be The Man 162 games a year. But he does have to be The Man on a regular basis, especially when his teammates start dropping like flies around him.
Tuesday night, the Nationals fielded a lineup without their regular Nos. 3, 4 or 5 hitters. Zimmerman is on the DL with a strained abdominal muscle. Adam LaRoche was held out with a minor groin strain. And Michael Morse was suffering from flu-like symptoms.
All of a sudden, Werth was the dominant player in a lineup that now boasted a 43-year-old cleanup hitter in Matt Stairs, a rookie No. 5 hitter in Wilson Ramos and a journeyman No. 6 hitter in Laynce Nix.
Yet inside the Nationals' clubhouse before the game, no one looked calmer than Werth, despite the pressure suddenly staring him in the face.
"It's been done before," he said.
Indeed, only one year ago, the Phillies counted on Werth to carry their lineup for more than a month, with Jimmy Rollins injured and Raul Ibanez slumping. From Opening Day through May 18 (the day after Rollins returned from the DL), Werth hit .336 with eight homers, 31 RBI, 20 doubles, a .416 on-base percentage and a 1.073 OPS that helped keep Philadelphia atop the NL East.
So when Werth doubled off Joe Blanton in the bottom of the fourth Tuesday night to ignite a three-run rally, then homered just inside the left-field foul pole one inning later to pad the Nationals' lead, he wasn't really doing anything out of the ordinary.
Aside from doing it against his old team, of course.
"Was it extra special against those guys? Probably a little bit," he said. "I was just trying to perform well for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. He hadn't seen me play in a while."
Manuel and the Phillies hadn't seen any of the Nationals since clinching the division on enemy turf last September, and what they saw Tuesday night didn't bear much resemblance to that club.
Despite the makeshift lineup, the Nationals managed to produce seven runs, nine hits and five walks. Ramos reached base three times, Nix twice. No. 8 hitter Jerry Hairston drove in a run. So did pitcher Livan Hernandez, dropping a perfect squeeze bunt with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth.
Hernandez was his usual brilliant self on the mound, allowing one run over 6 23 innings, striking out six without issuing a walk and deftly mixing in an assortment of slow breaking balls that had Philadelphia's hitters baffled.
Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett allowed the Phillies to narrow the gap some, but each reliever also came up huge by escaping a jam and not letting this game get too close for comfort.
"We know it's going to take 25 guys to have a successful season," Hairston said. "During the course of the year, we're going to have guys go down. Obviously you don't want guys like Zim going down, or Adam LaRoche for a couple of days. Guys that were brought in, veteran guys, need to step up. That's what we try to do."
Nobody stepped up more than Werth on this night. And though the prospect of facing aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee the next two nights (not to mention the prospect of playing the next two-plus weeks without Zimmerman) might sound daunting, the man shouldering the load right now in NatsTown remains as confident as ever.
"We're playing good baseball," Werth said. "We're at .500 right now, and I feel like our record could be better if we would have played better early. But I think we've got some things going, moving in the right direction. We've got a good ballclub. Chemistry's coming around. We've got good players. And even with those guys out, I think we can still win games."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.