Jayson Werth finding new niche as Nationals’ leadoff hitter

  • Washington Nationals' Jayson Werth celebrates after hitting a double during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

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Jayson Werth didn’t see this success as a leadoff hitter coming. How could he? With the Philadelphia Phillies his job was at the other end of the spectrum.

“I saw myself as 5-hole hitter that hit behind one of the prolific hitters of all-time,” Werth said. “I protected Ryan Howard and I loved it.”

Werth made his money as a right-handed power hitter, cashing in with the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2010. Werth wanted to be a part of a winning future and his production and price tag put him in position to lead the way.

Werth is leading the way for the National League East-champion Nationals but not playing the part he or anyone else anticipated. Rebounding from a wrist injury that sidelined him almost three months, the 33-year-old outfielder has embraced the leadoff role and thrived at the top of a stacked lineup.

“It almost is a better fit for my approach,” Werth said. “Not that I wouldn’t rather hit in the middle of the order, but right now with the injury and just the overall strength in my wrist, I think that leading off really fits well right now.”

Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth bats during a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, in Washington. The Nationals won 12-2. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth bats during a baseball game against … more 

There’s something about Werth leading off that works perfectly for the Nationals, who can trot out the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche behind him. Like his time in Philadelphia, Werth is now excelling as a complementary player.

But ex-teammate Laynce Nix doesn’t think that means he can’t handle shouldering the load.

“I think whether he wants to or not, he is the guy and I think that, like any team, when you have all your pieces healthy it’s going to help everybody,” said Nix, now with the Phillies after playing alongside Werth in Washington last season. “If you think about last year, the team went two months or so without Zim. Well, that hurts everyone. And LaRoche wasn’t producing and he wasn’t healthy, either. So I think if you add those things up, it’s not necessarily fair to say that Jayson couldn’t produce being the guy.”

Lineup help wanted

Werth hit .232 with 20 homers and 58 RBI in his first season with the Nationals, his worst numbers as a full-time player in the majors. He pointed out that with myriad injuries, the Nationals barely had a lineup last year.

Without the benefit of hitting behind Howard and Chase Utley, or even a healthy Zimmerman and LaRoche, Werth saw fewer quality pitches to hit and was forced to adjust. Also playing against him was a lineup that included several young major-league hitters trying to establish themselves. He suggested to then-manager Jim Riggleman that he try the leadoff role to see what happened, but that was just a 10-game experiment before Riggleman’s resignation.

And as much as Werth credits manager Davey Johnson for turning the Nationals’ fortunes around, it took the wrist injury and lineup chemistry established during his absence for his name to be put in the leadoff spot. Everything was clicking from No. 2 down, so Werth offered to slide into the place previously occupied by Steve Lombardozzi.

Werth was right: it fit pretty well. Leading off 37 times since Aug. 11 (going into Wednesday’s season finale), he hit .303 with 12 RBI, 20 walks and 25 runs scored. Ex-teammates didn’t envision him as a leadoff ace, but no one is surprised how well it turned out.

“He can do that because he’s athletic and he takes a lot of pitches,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who managed Werth for four seasons. “He’s an athlete. He is one of those guys that he can hit, he knock in runs, he can score runs and he can play good defense, he can steal bases. And he’s more of a complete player. That’s probably what they saw in him when they signed him, too. They got a guy who’s kind of a complete player because he does take a lot of pitches.”

That’s what Werth meant when he said his approach fits better as the leadoff guy.

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