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Nats get most from Werth in the leadoff spot
When the Nationals learned Friday that leadoff man Denard San would have hip surgery and miss the rest of the season, it was certainly discouraging news. Without Span’s .365 OPB and base-stealing potential atop the lineup, the team’s offense takes a severe hit, and with it their chances to catch the New York Mets in the National League East.
So manager Matt Williams turned to the solution he used when the Nats offense was struggling this season, and the one his predecessor Davey Johnson implemented when his team needed a spark down the stretch in 2012: Jayson Werth.
The 36-year-old Werth is not a prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s averaged 23 home runs and 146 strikeouts a season during his 13-year career, and he’s far from the fastest guy on the team. Those numbers seem more like something you’d see from a middle-of-the-order hitter.
One thing the veteran outfielder can do-however, is grind out at-bats. He works counts, taking some pitches and reaching across the strike zone to foul off others. That can be straining for a pitcher, especially the first batter of the game. With Werth’s typical power slow to return after a wrist injury kept him out of the lineup for the majority of the season, he needed a place where he could put his hitting skills to use without the need for power.
The results speak for themselves. Sunday’s 7-4 win over Miami was Werth’s tenth game as a leadoff hitter this season. The team is 7-3, and Werth has hit .361 with a .399 OBP during that stretch.
Those numbers are hardly surprising to anyone who remembers the Nationals’ amazing run to the 2012 division crown. After returning from a broken wrist that had sidelined him for much of the season, Werth was, just as he is now, a skilled hitter whose power hadn’t come back yet. In 38 games in the leadoff spot that season, he hit .309/.388/.450 and the Nats went 23-15.
In the National League Division Series against St. Louis, he hit .238/.333/.429, slightly off his regular-season leadoff numbers. But his turn in the order came up leading off the ninth inning of Game 4 with the score ted 1-1. In an epic at-bat against Lance Lynn, Werth fell behind 0-2, but then worked a full count, fouling off seven pitches in the process. On the 13th pitch, he authored the defining moment of the Nationals’ tenure in Washington, launching a ball into the left field bullpen for a 2-1 walkoff win.
Werth may not be an ideal leadoff hitter, but he is what the Nationals need at the top of the order right now. And they will likely need to keep up the .625 winning percentage they have with Werth as their leadoff hitter if they hope to catch the Mets and return to the postseason.