Monday, April 11, 2011, 11:13 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
NEW YORK -- Jayson Werth was holding court with a group of reporters Saturday at Citi Field, fielding questions about his impending rendezvous with the Phillies, when someone pointed out his new team was on a winning streak.
"Two? Is that a streak?" the Nationals' right fielder asked.
"For the Nationals, it is," the reporter replied.
Werth playfully teased back for a moment before turning serious.
"Unfortunately, I feel like that's the expectations of this team, things like that," he said. "I feel like that's a very typical answer from, not the guys in here, but I feel like that's the expectation of the fans and the media. And that is something I want to change."
Werth knew the daunting task he would face upon leaving Philadelphia in December to sign with the Nationals for seven years and 126 million. Having spent the previous four seasons playing for the annual NL East champions (not to mention the 2008 World Series winners) he was now headed to a franchise that had yet to post a winning record in its first six years in the District.
Nine games into his Nationals career, Werth hasn't magically transformed this club into a winner. Washington is 4-5 heading into the start of a six-game homestand Tuesday. But he has quickly won over teammates and coaches with his work ethic, positive attitude and leadership qualities.
Werth understands that's the necessary first step in a long path toward respectability.
"Perception isn't changed overnight," he said. "Hopefully this team will be the team that can change perception in Washington, D.C., and around the league and around the country. It's going to take winning to change that."
Specifically, it's going to take some wins against a Phillies club that has flat-out dominated the Nationals in recent years. During his four seasons in Philadelphia, Werth went 51-21 against Washington.
Werth will get his first opportunity to return the favor Tuesday night when the Phillies come to town for the first three of their 18 head-to-head games this season. It's an encounter he has been looking forward to since signing that mammoth contract over the winter.
"When I signed here, that was one of the things I was happy about," he said. "Staying in the division. Being able to play in Philly, for better or for worse. Playing against those guys. It's not like I felt like I was leaving, never to be seen again. It's cool."
Though he says he's "closed the book on that time in my life," Werth admittedly remains friends with many of his ex-teammates and coaches.
The feeling is mutual in the City of Brotherly Love.
"I miss seeing him and talking to him," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
"We'll miss him in the clubhouse, miss his character," center fielder Shane Victorino said. "It felt different the first few days. He has that personality, that humor. You feel it."
Victorino was perhaps closer to Werth than anyone in the Philadelphia clubhouse, the two having previously played together in the Dodgers' system before either outfielder enjoyed his breakthrough. When Werth was forced to miss the entire 2006 season with a major wrist injury, he called Victorino from his boat and shared some surprising news.
"He said, 'I think I'm going to quit, shut it down,' because he couldn't get healthy," Victorino recalled. "'I can't get healthy. My wrist can't get better.'"
Werth ultimately stuck it out, signed with the Phillies in 2007 for 850,000 and saw his career take off. Four years later, he was rewarded with the 14th-largest contract in baseball history.
"So when he signed here, I was so happy," Victorino said. "I was so happy to see him revive his career. ... To see him go from that, to coming in and playing every day, to signing for 126 million in the offseason -- that to me is pretty cool."
The adjustment from life with the Phillies to life with the Nationals was a bit shocking at first, Werth admits, due perhaps more to the striking difference between spring training in sleepy Viera vs. popular Clearwater.
But it didn't take long before Werth immersed himself in his new environment, inviting Nationals teammates to his place for dinner frequently throughout the spring.
"I think that's kind of normal," he said. "As time goes on, those feelings kind of subside and you find normalcy in what you're doing where you're at. I've felt comfortable here for quite some time, if not from the start."
Werth's performance at the outset of his Nationals career has vacillated between brilliant and unsightly. He reached base in five of his first nine plate appearances, leads the team with seven walks and clubbed a key home run in Thursday's extra-inning win over the Marlins. But he also committed a ghastly error two days earlier that led to a crushing loss and he enters this homestand mired in an 0-for-10 slump that has dropped his batting average to .200.
It remains to be seen what kind of scene awaits Werth Tuesday night at Nationals Park. How will his old teammates react upon seeing him in a curly W cap for the first time? How will the Philly faithful certain to make the trek down I-95 greet their former right fielder? How will he perform against the likes of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee?
And, by the end of the week, how will the perception of Washington's baseball club be changed, if at all?
"I'm looking forward to seeing them all," Werth said. "You can't take away what happened. We did some great things for that organization, for that city. What happened when I was there, I'll always remember and look back on and think fondly of my time in Philly. I'll always have that.
"But I'm to the point now where I'm trying to build something similar here. I've got a job to do. I take my job serious. Of course I'm looking forward to seeing my old teammates and friends. But once the game starts, the game takes priority. It's just business as usual, really."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman. Phillies Insider Jim Salisbury of CSNphilly.com contributed to this article.