It happened quickly. Jayson Werth walked to open the Nationals’ half of their 8-1 win Thursday night and three pitches later Bryce Harper was circling the bases behind him with his third home run in his last five at-bats.
Werth has served as the leadoff hitter for 10 games this season, all since he came off the disabled list on Aug. 2. And for all 10 of them, Harper has hit behind him in the No. 2 hole. Devoid of a player he sees as a “traditional” leadoff hitter, manager Davey Johnson has used multiple this season. When it works, like it has the past two games, you wonder if there’s a need for that typical type of guy at all.
“What a great leadoff hitter,” Johnson said. “He takes a lot of pitches, makes them throw it over, and he’s hit some tough pitches for base hits. … I really like guys who can get on base and also produce runs. Both can run. Both basically make them throw it over. It’s great.”
Werth said he’s seen himself as the same type of hitter since he was 8 years old and even his father has tried to get him to take fewer pitches. “He just can’t get through to me,” he quipped Thursday night.
But in the last two games, Werth and Harper have combined to go 8-for-19 (.421) with four home runs, nine RBI and seven runs scored.
“I love hitting behind him,” Harper said of Werth. “He sets the tone early, and he really fires me up and gets me going. Having him hit in front of us really sets the tone for everybody.”
“You know, you get through us and then you’ve got (Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa),” Werth said. “That’s tough. It just brings a different dynamic. Your 1-2 guys aren’t your prototypical 1-2 guys. They’re more middle-of-the-order type guys … but I feel comfortable up there. It doesn’t bother me.”
Thursday night marked a big night for both hitters, particularly Werth, who hit his first home run since returning from a broken left wrist — the same wrist he had operated on twice before.
In June, Werth ordered bats an ounce-and-a-half lighter than the ones he’d been using before he got hurt. They were the same weight as the ones he used in 2007 when he was coming back from the wrist injury that nearly ended his career.
“I figured that’d be a good place to start,” Werth said, admitting that his older, heavier bat simply didn’t feel right after the break. He’s not sure if he’ll ever be to the point where he doesn’t think about his wrist anymore, but “I feel confident about where I’m at and my ability to play the game.”
Since coming off the disabled list, Werth is hitting .337 with 10 extra-base hits and 10 walks in 25 games.
“The strength was the big thing,” Werth said. “Immobilized for that long, you lose a lot of strength, and I still feel like I haven’t gained it all back yet. I went to the lighter bat, but my swing’s been good since coming off the rehab, and I like where I’m at. You know, it’s not always about hitting homers. I think those will come. That’s just a matter of being in good position and getting a good pitch. … Hitting homers, doubles, whatever. I just want to get on base. Hitting at the top of the order in a lineup as potent as this one, it’s all about getting on base and scoring runs.”
Asked how he felt about being placed in front of Harper, Werth smiled. “I like it,” he said and went on to explain that a good deal of why he likes it so much is because of who the Nationals have coming up in spots 3-7 in their healthy lineup. It “really is no day at the beach.”
Neither Harper nor Werth acknowledged if they’ve seen pitchers attacking Harper differently with Werth getting on base at a high clip in front of him, but, as Werth pointed out, “If they are, they need to change, because it’s not working.”
Harper, who’s struggled much more in the second half than he did in the first, is hitting .304 in the last 12 games and has started to show signs of getting back to being the type of hitter he was when he was first called up. Johnson mentioned his lower half appearing calmer Thursday, and Harper’s swings the past two games were much more concise and compact. His power has followed.
“I felt good,” Harper said, sending a pitch to deep center field in his second at-bat that was just a few feet shy of another home run. “I’ve been feeling good for the past couple weeks. Just trying to stay within myself and play the game that I’ve been playing.”
“Bryce is a totally different animal,” Werth said. “He’s a special player. He’s 19, and it’s unbelievable. When I was 19, I don’t know if I would’ve been ready for all this, but he’s doing a good job. You know, I’m just glad he stayed in the game tonight.”