- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — Jayson Werth arrived in Viera, Fla., on Friday night and by early Saturday afternoon he was inside the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, getting himself together to go take batting practice with second baseman Danny Espinosa.

But before he took his first in-town hacks of the spring, Werth acknowledged that things are different this year. He had plenty of time to mull over 2011 in what he emphasized was a long offseason (without playing in the postseason), and he’s well aware that the numbers he put up in 2011 weren’t what anyone was expecting, especially after signing a seven-year, $126 million deal last offseason.

Instead of trying to delve into the ‘why’ behind the .232 average, .389 slugging percentage, .718 on-base plus slugging percentage and career-high 160 strikeouts, the outfielder is focusing more on the simple issues: his swing wasn’t right from the start and ‘right’ ultimately never came. Whether it was pressure or not, he doesn’t care to ponder it.

Asked directly about contract pressure, Werth said, “I don’t even know how to answer that question.

“Me personally, as far as that goes, I don’t have any interest in talking about it, really. I can’t do anything about it. I can’t change it.

“It’s over. Water under the bridge now. I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to judge my career or my time in Washington on last year. We’ve got lots of time to make good. We’re going in the right direction. … I’m not going to sit here and talk about [2011] much more than today.”

One theory that Werth did allow, though, was comfort. Now a full-time District-area resident, Werth’s comfort level with his surroundings, his teammates — perhaps even his contract — is much more prevalent than it was this time last year.

“I’m home now,” Werth said, looking around at the clubhouse. “I know everybody in here. I’m comfortable. I think that can definitely play a role. Last year, I got started off on the wrong foot early a little bit and I was never able to fundamentally get back to what’s made me successful.”

Werth talked about an exchange he once had with former Philadelphia Phillies teammate Eric Bruntlett who told him about hitting with Lance Berkman in spring training. Bruntlett asked Berkman, “What are you trying to do?” and Berkman replied, “You just try to get a good path in spring training and keep it all year. If I don’t get that good path in spring, I might not get it.”

“At the time (Bruntlett) told me that, I kind of put it in the memory banks and thought about it,” Werth said. “As the winter went on, I pulled that back up. It’s pretty insightful. If you don’t get it at the start, it’s tough to get. I think that was just kind of the case last year. It doesn’t define me as an individual. It doesn’t define me as a baseball player. It doesn’t define my career. It was one year and 600 at-bats. I’m over it and looking forward to this year.”

Werth said he didn’t alter his offseason routine much and brought up several times that one of the biggest victories for him in 2011 was that he made it through the season healthy — allowing him to have a normal offseason to prepare for 2012. If Werth returns to form and the rest of the lineup is healthy, he’d also likely find himself in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup. His swing, he said, feels fundamentally solid — unlike last season when it “started bad and stayed bad.”

“[Either way], health is the biggest thing. … In [ 2005], I played hurt all year, and then I had surgery at the end of ‘05, and then I didn’t play in ‘06. I was a bench player in ‘07, I was a platoon halfway in ‘08. That hurt. That was tough. Last year was no big deal. Would I have liked to have better numbers? Of course. You do what you got to do.”

Part of putting last year behind him, though, will come from beginning this season — a season with significant expectations placed on the Nationals — anew. The goal he reiterated, as he did countless times in 2011 regardless of where the Nationals were in the standings, is “to win a World Series.”

Being a playoff spectator this offseason wasn’t something Werth, who’d played in the playoffs the previous four years with Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Dodgers, particularly enjoyed. He called it an “enlightening” experience and realized how badly he missed playing on that stage.

“It was like, ‘Man, I really want to be there,’” Werth said. “That’s what you play for. That’s why you train all winter. … I missed it. That’s a really fun experience. It’s why you play the game from Little League all the way up. …

“Hopefully we can get there sooner than later, that’s for sure … I think these guys in here are talented enough and hungry enough. We’ve got the right mix of coaches and the manager and the attitude. I think a little bit from a fan base, they could get behind a team, fill the stadium every night and make it tough on the [visiting] team, it could go a long way. That’s something that, if we can get that aspect, it could catapult us ahead a little bit.”

Werth watched every minute of the playoffs but wasn’t entirely surprised to see what happened to his former team, the Phillies, who were knocked out of the Division Series by the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals.

But as for whether the Nationals have some of the same aspects that made his former playoff teams successful, he said, “We’ve got more pitching.”

“Before, I think the teams I was on that made it just got hot at the end and had a good lineup, but the pitching over there came later,” Werth said, referring to the Phillies‘ top of the rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. “This team, our pitching’s good now. It’s young, it’s going to continue to get better.”

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