CHICAGO — Late Wednesday night, when most of his teammates had showered and gone, Jayson Werth poked his head out of the kitchen area at Wrigley Field as he waited for his post-game meal to be prepared, and curled his 6-foot-5 frame into a folding chair in the clubhouse.
Werth was 1-for-3 with a three-run home run and two walks in the Nationals’ 11-6 victory over the Cubs. In a season that is shaping up to be quite possibly the finest of his career — and in an August that continues to get more torrid by the day for him — that was a pretty normal stat line.
Everything about his post-game demeanor made him seem content, as if what he’d done was routine and in the process the Nationals picked up a win.
Since the All-Star break, Werth is hitting .404 with eight of his 18 home runs. In August alone he’s hit .452.
“I feel good,” he said. “That’s probably all I want to say. I don’t really like to talk about it. You play baseball since you were four years old, and I’m fairly superstitious. I’ll leave it at that.”
But there is more to what’s gone on with Werth this season than simply feeling good or being superstitious. Manager Davey Johnson often stresses how pleased he is with the approach Werth has taken at the plate this season — how having a healthy wrist has given him confidence, and that has translated to a more aggressive approach at the plate.
And perhaps that is part of it. But While Werth has hit consistently well this season, before and after a month-long stint on the disabled list with a hamstring strain what he’s done since the middle of July has been remarkable.
From the time Werth came back from the disabled list on June 4 up until the All-Star break, he hit very well — .326/.401/.515. But as well as he was doing, over time, Werth felt like balls he was getting to and putting a good stroke on weren’t necessarily traveling as far as he’d expect.
He realized that when he was at his best, in 2009 and 2010 with the Phillies, his hands were higher when he was making contact.
When the Nationals came out of the All-Star break, Werth began to hold his hands higher in his stance and stand more upright — the idea being that when he’d get to the point of contact, they’d be right where he wanted them. He hit five home runs in the next three games.
“When I made the adjustment it was because they weren’t getting the height I wanted them to be before I went to the ball,” Werth said Wednesday night. “So I raised them so they wouldn’t have as far to go. When I did that, I was hitting good when I raised them, the results weren’t happening like I wanted.
“I didn’t feel like I had the power. When I went back and looked at video, that was the thing that stuck out the most. The swings were pretty close. The height of my hands at the top weren’t where they used to be… It was an easy adjustment.”
Right now, Werth has the highest on-base plus slugging percentage of his career, and his .330 average would stand as the third-best mark in the National League when he gets enough at-bats to qualify for the league leaders, which should be in the next week or so.
The rub, of course, is that Werth cannot carry the Nationals all on his own. A few players talked Wednesday about the positive signs they’d seen of late. The Nationals have won 8 of their last 12 games, but only three of their last six. They remain 15 games behind the Braves in the division, and 9.5 games back of the Reds for the second Wild Card spot.
A few weeks ago, Werth talked a bit about looking toward the future, reminding himself of all the promise the Nationals still hold for the seasons ahead. And while Johnson drops daily hints that he is shifting his own focus toward player evaluation for the future, general manager Mike Rizzo said he remains committed to trying to win each day and push for the postseason.
Werth had a realistic, but hopeful, take.
“I’ve done the math on what needs to happen for us to get to the postseason,” Werth said. “And I’ll tell you in 2007 and in 2008, more so in 2007 but I was on the team (6.5) back with 17 to play. So I know it can happen. I haven’t given up hope. I haven’t stopped believing in this season. My focus is on the task at hand and this season.
“I also realize what has to happen. You can really only take care of yourself. We can probably only lose maybe ten more games. Maybe. That’s if one of those other teams loses a lot of games. If they play .500 ball, it’s less games than that. We essentially got to win every night and that’s got to be our mindset.”
In that regard, Wednesday was a good start. The Nationals held a five-run lead, gave it all back, and then rebuilt it in order to take the victory and ensure at least a series split with the Cubs.
“It’s been the story of the year for us,” Werth said. “When we get up early, we don’t tack on. We get out to a lead, the team comes back. We haven’t really done anything to come back. When we’re down, we really haven’t come from behind.
“You look back at last year when we won all those games, we did it quite a bit. On teams I’ve been on in the past — I was just thinking about that other day — there was 2011 and 2005, and I didn’t play in ’06 but that team went to the playoffs so I’ve only been on two teams that didn’t go to the postseason. So this’ll be my third time if things don’t really change. I was thinking about that. All those teams that I’ve played on that end up winning the division, we came from behind it felt like almost every night. That’s the story of our season really. We haven’t come from behind like championship teams do.”
– In an amusing side note, Werth was captured with a tremendous reaction to a 57-mph eephus pitch, simply freezing and watching it go by on Wednesday night. Here’s the clip of the pitch. He said Thursday it was probably the slowest pitch he’d ever seen in pro ball.