- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The season’s first half was a blast from the beginning, when the Washington Nationals peeled off to a 14-4 start. They have been playing with house money ever since — no pressure to win, nothing to lose — enjoying their emergence as one of baseball’s best and most popular teams.

Most everyone expected Washington’s upward mobility in the NL East … next year. Yes, the Nats were a cute pick to contend for a wild card this season, but 2013 was supposed to be their year for real, with an unrestricted Stephen Strasburg and a 20-year-old Bryce Harper.

Whatever happened this season would be gravy, the season-long appetizer before years’ worth of entrees.

Much to the delight of Nats fans everywhere, manager Davey Johnson convinced his team otherwise. His bold proclamations in spring training, stating that he should be fired if Washington misses the playoffs, set the tone and changed the culture. Even through the spotty offense and a slew of injuries, the Nats have grown in confidence with each series win.

The season’s second half will be more like work as they fight to maintain what they’ve established, namely the National League’s best record. But his team being a year early to the party gives someone the perfect opportunity to make his grand entrance a year late: Jayson Werth.

Instead of wondering when Strasburg will reach his innings limit and be shut down, a more pressing concern is when Werth replicates his career norms and heats up.

He failed miserably last season, his first in Washington after signing a $126 million contract, posting his worst numbers in six years: a .232 average, .718 OPS, 58 RBI and 160 strikeouts. It didn’t matter much because the team was going nowhere. It wasn’t the burden of trying to win that got to Werth, but the burden of justifying that contract.

Not that he’s alone. The player he essentially replaced on the Nats was terrible last year, too, after signing a $56 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Adam Dunn had batted .253 and averaged 40 homers in the previous seven seasons, but hit just .159 with 11 homers in 2011. “Big Donkey” bounced back this season with 25 first-half home runs, good for an All-Star berth.

It was too early to tell if Werth was headed for a similar recovery when he broke his left wrist May 6, but there were promising signs. In 27 games through the injury, he’s batting .276 with an on-base percentage of .372, both above his career averages. Werth hadn’t gotten hot but he hadn’t stunk, either, a vast improvement over his inaugural season with the Nats.

Werth is expected to begin swinging shortly and could be ready to return in early August. He’ll have to adjust to being back, but he could be in position to make his first impact at the most opportune time, with the Nats striving for a postseason berth.

There’s still the question of what happens to the lineup. If Danny Espinosa doesn’t cut it as an everyday leadoff hitter, Werth could find himself back atop the order. But no matter where he hits, he’ll represent the Nats’ biggest second-half addition at the plate.

Werth should feel much more comfortable down the stretch, as he’ll be surrounded with help for the first time since leaving the Philadelphia Phillies. First baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman suffered major injuries early last season, leaving Werth as the sole established veteran to carry the load. With those two, plus Morse, Harper and first-half MVP Ian Desmond, Werth doesn’t have to be a $126 million Superman doing everything by himself.

If he’d like to try, though, July 31 would be a great time to begin. The Phillies will be back in town for the first time since Werth broke his wrist against them and was taunted by their fans at Nationals Park.

It would be fabulous if the teams’ next encounter was the starting point as Werth makes a second impression in Washington.