- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jayson Werth didn’t see this success as a leadoff hitter coming. How could he? With the Philadelphia Phillies, his job was at the other end of the spectrum.

“I saw myself as five-hole hitter that hit behind one of the prolific hitters of all time,” Werth said. “I protected Ryan Howard, and I loved it.”

Werth made his money as a right-handed power hitter, cashing in with the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2010. Werth wanted to be part of a winning future, and his production and price tag put him in position to lead the way.

Werth is leading the way for the National League East-champion Nationals but not playing the part he or anyone else anticipated. Rebounding from a wrist injury that sidelined him almost three months, the 33-year-old outfielder has embraced the leadoff role and thrived at the top of a stacked lineup

“It almost is a better fit for my approach,” Werth said. “Not that I wouldn’t rather hit in the middle of the order, but right now with the injury and just the overall strength in my wrist, I think that leading off really fits well right now.”

There’s something about Werth leading off that works perfectly for the Nationals, who can trot out the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche behind him. Like his time in Philadelphia, Werth is excelling as a complementary player.

But ex-teammate Laynce Nix doesn’t think that means he can’t handle shouldering the load.

“I think whether he wants to or not, he is the guy. And I think that, like any team, when you have all your pieces healthy it’s going to help everybody,” said Nix, now with the Phillies after playing alongside Werth in Washington last season. “If you think about last year, the team went two months or so without Zim. Well, that hurts everyone. And LaRoche wasn’t producing and he wasn’t healthy, either. So I think if you add those things up, it’s not necessarily fair to say that Jayson couldn’t produce being the guy.”

Lineup help wanted

Werth hit .232 with 20 homers and 58 RBI in his first season with the Nationals, his worst numbers as a full-time player in the majors. He pointed out that with myriad injuries, the Nationals barely had a lineup last year.

Without the benefit of hitting behind Howard and Chase Utley, or even a healthy Zimmerman and LaRoche, Werth saw fewer quality pitches and was forced to adjust. Also working against him was a lineup that included several young hitters trying to establish themselves. Werth suggested to then-manager Jim Riggleman that he try batting leadoff, but that was just a 10-game experiment before Riggleman’s resignation.

And as much as Werth credits manager Davey Johnson for turning the Nationals’ fortunes around, it took the wrist injury and lineup chemistry established during his absence for his name to be put in the leadoff spot. Everything was clicking from No. 2 down, so Werth offered to slide into the place previously occupied by Steve Lombardozzi.

The move paid dividends. Leading off 37 times since Aug. 11 (going into Wednesday’s regular-season finale), he hit .303 with 12 RBI, 20 walks and 25 runs. Ex-teammates didn’t envision him as a leadoff threat, but no one is surprised how well it turned out.

“He can do that because he’s athletic and he takes a lot of pitches,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s an athlete. He is one of those guys that he can hit, he knocks in runs, he can score runs and he can play good defense, he can steal bases. And he’s more of a complete player. That’s probably what they saw in him when they signed him, too. They got a guy who’s kind of a complete player because he does take a lot of pitches.”

That’s what Werth meant when he said his approach fits better as the leadoff guy.

“And at the plate, obviously, he has the patience to be a leadoff hitter. He takes a lot of pitches, which is something as you hit lower in the lineup, you’d rather see guys swinging at pitches,” said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, Werth’s teammate for four seasons. “But he’s had success doing it his way. By his natural approach to the plate, leading off shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s a bonus because he really has true power.”

Moving up the lineup, Werth sacrificed plenty of power. “The strength of my wrist of all that was an issue,” he said, but he’s also trying to accomplish different things than if he was batting cleanup.

His five home runs are his fewest since 2007, though Werth has appeared in just 80 games. Hitting .297, his versatility has been on full display.

Jayson has been a leadoff hitter all the way to cleanup, a guy that’s expected to drive in runs,” Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr. said. “I think that it just kind of points to his skill set, that’s he’s able to do what a lot of different situations call for.”

An ideal fit

Upon signing with the Nationals, many figured this situation called for Werth to be a mid-lineup force. As he stood in the glow of the Nationals’ NL East-clinching celebration, Werth conceded signing in Washington was a gamble: He was taking on a lot of pressure, stepping out of Utley’s and Howard’s shadows to be the man and a big part of making this team a winner.

And while Nix might be right that Werth can stand out as a star, his fit atop this balanced, powerful Nationals lineup has been ideal.

“After his injuries, obviously, with guys around him, you got Harper coming up, you have guys to push you and guys that you push and you look forward to that,” Rollins said. “Every time you go out there, ‘What can I do to help my team today?’ As opposed to ‘It’s all on me, if I don’t do it, then we don’t win.’

“Mentally, it makes a huge difference. It makes a difference on the field, in the numbers, the way your teammates look at you, the way you feel about them and also your manager feels that much better about you when he knows that everything has to come down to you, but if you struggle, we got this guy who can pick you up today, but you’re still going to be a big part and you should know that.”

Werth does know that. There’s nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to being an elite leadoff hitter on a playoff team.

Rollins, slid into a similar spot by Manuel a few years ago, understands the difference in mindset.

“Having power in the leadoff spot is a bonus, but it’s more so knowing that you’re leading your team through the fire,” Rollins said. “You’re the first one, you can come back [and say], ‘Hey, he’s pretty good today, the umpire’s zone is this,’ kind of set the attitude and things of that nature. … You’re counted upon to be that guy that gets it going for the team.”

Werth looks comfortable as the player who gets it going for the Nationals, a spark plug at the plate and on the base paths. He enjoys the nuances of leading off, and he’s invaluable to a team that searched long and hard in recent years for a legitimate, consistent leadoff man.

“It’s valuable for the club,” Nix said. “They’re fortunate that they have other guys hitting for power and driving in runs where he can get on base and be the guy being driven in right now. But he can also be a run producer, too.”

Maybe next year, when Werth’s wrist is 100 percent and he could put some more pop back into his swing. As the Nationals open the postseason this weekend, it’s clear that Werth is no longer mired in the middle of the lineup like last season.

“It was just a little out of place. That’s all,” he said. “But I’m not anymore. I’m right where I need to be.”

• Staff writer Amanda Comak contributed to this report.