There was little about his first game against his old team at Nationals Park that surprised Jayson Werth. And why should there have been? Everything that’s happened between the Nationals and Phillies the last four years - all the times the Nationals have walked off the field as the Phillies clinched a playoff spot, all the Philadelphia fans that have turned games at Nationals Park into quasi-home games for their favorite team - Werth helped build.
Now, he’s trying to help tear it down.
Maybe that’s too harsh; Werth’s main goal is to see the Nationals get to the point where the Phillies have been the last four years, winning the NL East each season, playing in two World Series, winning one and becoming the toast of a town that hadn’t lit up for baseball like that in years. But to do that, especially while the Phillies are still the best team in the division, will necessarily require the Nationals to go through them.
Their 7-4 win over the Phillies on Tuesday night, in which Werth went 2-for-3 and hit a fifth-inning homer that silenced the boobirds who had come down Interstate-95, didn’t change the balance of power. Let’s quash that idea now. The Phillies had Joe Blanton, their worst pitcher, on the mound; the next two days, they’ll start two pitchers with a combined three Cy Young Awards.
But the Nationals did line up against a team that’s tormented them over the years, did it without their third, fourth, and fifth hitters, and turned in a convincing, nearly mistake-free performance. String together a couple handfuls more of those, and maybe things will change.
“That’s the only way we’re going to do it, (by beating the Phillies,)” Werth said. “We’re not going to do it by doing commercials and appearances and charity work. That’s not going to get it done. The only way to change the culture here with this team in Washington, D.C., with this team is to win. It was a big win tonight, but we’ve got to continue to do it. Essentially, we’re going to have to win a lot - not just play .500 ball or not finish in last place. You’re going to have to win a division, you’re going to have to win a wild card, and that takes work.”
Werth talks frequently, and eloquently, about making people see a different side of the Nationals. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it happen in Philadelphia.
The Phillies haven’t had a season where they’d won less than 80 games since 2000. But from 2001-06, the only time they finished in the top five of the National League in attendance was 2004, when Citizens Bank Park opened.
That all changed in 2007, when the Phillies went to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Mets fans, who used to drive down to Philadelphia the way Phillies fans do to Washington now, couldn’t find tickets anymore. The Phillies drew 3.1 million fans that season, and their attendance has gone up every season since. Last year, they drew more than 3.7 million fans, the most in the National League.
In Werth’s experience, those changes were a byproduct of winning. And in his eyes, anything else a team does should be secondary to that.
Manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo have praised the way Werth has molded the clubhouse this year, creating what’s probably a less tolerant, but more professional atmosphere than the Nationals have had in past years. They’re not a young team this year - their average age is 29.5 - and as much as they’ve pointed to youth as a reason for their struggles in previous years, they haven’t had an average age under 28 since 2008. But age doesn’t necessarily bring maturity.
“Inexperienced players, you’ve got to hold their hand in a sense and teach them how to play the game the right way,” Werth said. “The only way to do that is to have veteran guys around them, teaching them the right stuff, which hasn’t been the case in the past. It is now, though.
“The thing you don’t want to do is come crashing down on them. You’ve got to be there for them, and believe in them, be a good teammate, but also be a friend. We’ve got a good thing going here. Really, I believe it.”
Werth admitted the homer he hit to put the Nationals up 5-1 was “probably a little bit” more special than a normal one. And third baseman Jerry Hairston took some pleasure in seeing the homer silence the Phillies fans in attendance.
“They’re Philly fans,” Hairston said. “Obviously, Philly is known to be hard on their own players. I knew Jayson kind of expected it. It’s to be expected. I can’t wait until we go back to Philly.”
As far as any grand significance, though, that won’t happen this week. It would mean more to Werth if the Nationals can be the ones to celebrate a division title against his old team. The role reversal would happen then.
“Going to Philly in (2007), we played the Mets, and there were a lot of Mets fans. I don’t think there are too many Mets fans left,” he said. “We play the Phillies, there’s a lot of Phillies fans. We start winning, change things around here, and they’ll go away.”