Baseball Insider

Long before breakthrough homer, Werth delivered professionalism to Nats


Jayson Werth played on five division winners and a World Series champion before arriving in D.C. (AP)  
Jayson Werth played on five division winners and a World Series champion before arriving in D.C. (AP)  

WASHINGTON -- Before there was a Stephen Strasburg controversy here, there was a Jayson Werth controversy. But for today, at least, there is no controversy, no complaints, no critics even.

By hitting his 14th career postseason home run, Werth provided the first home playoff victory in this town in 79 years, at a time so long ago there weren't even presidents' races. So there are only cheers today.

Werth was brought here ostensibly to show the young Nationals how to win. And, well, his ninth-inning home run that settled Game 4 in the Nats' favor was inarguably the biggest victory in their young history.

Patience is a necessity for a baseball fan in this town, and even a Werth at-bat can seem interminable at times. It wasn't until pitch No. 13 from Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn that Werth ended the plate appearance and game with the home run that gave the Nats a 2-1 victory and pushed the world champions to a decisive Game 5 in this Division Series.

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Werth's line-shot home run to left field decided one of the more pronounced pitchers' duels and sent the anxious but electric crowd into delirium. You can't blame the throng for going as wild as Werth, who two winters ago left the perennially winning Phillies for a team that was losing year after year. But rather than being seen as a savior at the time, he was looked upon as being the most overpaid ballplayer -- at least until the big contract came along.

Werth was only a great complementary player, many experts argued, after he inked the $126 million, seven-year contract that raised eyebrows and ire around baseball. And it's true he was never the No. 3 or No. 4 hitter of those vaunted Phillies teams; those were Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. But almost immediately, the kids in the Nats clubhouse saw the value of Werth. He brings a cool veteran vibe to a team that's one of the youngest in baseball. He's very opinionated, but he studies the game and he cares quite a bit.

Even if the .232 first-year batting average didn't match the dollars in his inaugural season in Washington -- then half his second year was spoiled by a fluke play that broke his wrist -- he is still appreciated where almost all the other starters are in their 20s -- except his bearded outfield protégé Bryce Harper, who is 19, and like Werth is a speedy former catcher turned outfielder.

"Jayson hasn't gotten nearly enough credit for what he does in this clubhouse," said Nats closer Drew Storen, the winner in an odd coincidence over his Brownsburg, Ind., high school teammate Lance Lynn, who allowed the home run to Werth. "He deserves this. From Day One he's come in and changed the culture in it. Even if his batting average didn't show it, he brought a winning attitude and accountability."

Nats management also hoped he would bring his extraordinary postseason power, which somehow outstrips his regular-season muscle. This homer was the 14th of his October career, tying him for Texas' Nelson Cruz for fourth among active players, behind only Derek Jeter (20), Albert Pujols (18) and Jim Thome (17), and one ahead of A-Rod, who has had many more postseason at-bats, as you might imagine.

Immediately after this one, Werth said, "You know, I can't even remember the other ones right now."

This one ended a distinct pitching night, where the stars until the final pitch were all the teams' hurlers, plus home-plate umpire Jim Joyce, whose strike zone started to approach Crystal City. Before Werth struck, there were only five hits between the teams. "That's the way the game should have ended ... Jayson Werth hitting a home run," Nats manager Davey Johnson declared.

Werth's ability to remain calm belies his wild-man appearance, highlighted by the thick flowing blond locks and deep beard, which has given rise to its own Twitter accounts. Perhaps it contributed to what Nats players claimed was a serene feel in the clubhouse before an elimination game against baseball's best October team, the Cardinals. St. Louis is 5-0 in its own elimination games since the start of the 2011 playoffs, so the Nats' task will get a bit harder Friday night, even if ace Gio Gonzalez starts in Game 5.

"We've had a large number of heartbreakers this year, and I think that's really been used to develop the character of this team," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.

If there's anything we've learned over the past several years, it's not to count out the Cardinals.

No one could have blamed the Nats for a bit of panic after being outscored 20-4 in Games 2 and 3 defeats. But the team, with a nice mix of smart, quirky and colorful youngsters, to a man said they weren't feeling any extra nerves. "It was loose, but we had a little fire," Storen said.

An odd inspirational pregame mix of Teddy Roosevelt's words and AC/DC music seemed to inspire the troops, or at least that's what they tell you. Veteran Mark DeRosa, who's pushing 40 and must be a fatherly figure in that clubhouse, was the leader of the rousing pregame speech that couldn't have hurt.

"We're a young team, and we have no experience. But nobody feels any pressure," Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't know if it's because we're such a tight-knit group."

Even Nats starting pitcher Ross Detwiler, a St. Louis product who was ostensibly the replacement for the idle ace Strasburg and had every reason to panic, said he was feeling no nerves. He was beaten up pretty good in his previous couple starts, including one against his hometown Cardinals. But he lasted six innings of one-run ball before turning it over to a Nats pen that was impossibly dominant.

Nats relievers Jordan Zimmermann (who was rocked as the Game 2 starter) and Tyler Clippard struck out the side in their two innings before Storen whiffed two more Cardinals in the ninth, leading to Werth's big chance against Storen's high school teammate.

Storen, recalling how Werth once beat him in a similar spot in 2010, predicted a déjà vu dinger. And with Werth's October record, it wasn't a bad call at all.


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