Coincidence or not, there’s a common link between the decline of the Phillies, who have been so dismal this season Ryne Sandberg couldn’t take it anymore, and the Washington Nationals, who currently lead the NL East (a division once dominated by the Phillies not long ago).
Maybe it would’ve played out the same anyway. Maybe the young Nats, with all that pitching and offensive talent, would’ve eventually come of age. Maybe the Phils would’ve inevitably hit the skids. We’ll never know for sure. But the Nats are sure glad Jayson Werth came over to their side.
"He brought a certain swagger over here and they lost that swagger at the same time," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who arrived in September, 2009 when the Nats were losing in the process of losing 103 games, finishing 34 games behind the first place Phillies. "They kind of underestimated his value. I think a couple of other players have said that publicly. When he left they lost a little bit of their heartbeat."
Not right away, though. After helping get the 2010 Phils back to the NLCS for the third straight year, the then 31-year-old Werth turned down the Phils relatively modest offer to sign a monster seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals. Considering the number of injuries that has marred his Washington career — most recently a fractured wrist injury that has sidelined him since May 15 — it’s difficult to argue the Phillies did not make a smart business decision.
All the Nats know is what a boost he not only gave their lineup but their confidence.
"Our guys have matured," said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who came up during a 69-93 campaign in 2010 before Werth’s arrival resulted in the Nats going 80-81 in 2011(they won the Division a year later). "Obviously we made some key acquisitions as well. That helps. You’ve gotta get your big free agent. Signing a Jayson Werth allows another one to want to come to a winning atmosphere.’’
Or to plant the seeds for what quickly turned into a losing one.
"Jayson was a lot bigger hit to them than people thought, because he gave Ryan Howard and the middle of that lineup protection," explained Espinosa. "You played the Phillies and would go 1-2-3-4 (Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Howard) and forget Jayson was hitting fifth. You didn’t have a break in the lineup. They lost him and then had injuries to Doc (Roy Halladay) and Cliff Lee. Before that this was the toughest team to beat. It was hell playing against them. With their pitching staff they had three of the top five pitchers in the league. You always caught one of their best guys.’’
Now it’s the Nats who in a given series can throw some combination of Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister at you, while the Phillies scuffle on a nightly basis. Now it’s the Nats who fill their ballpark and even bring a following up here.
They’ve sure come a long way from the lowly team the Phils beat here in back-to-back years to clinch the Division.
"I remember coming in here," said Desmond. "Sold out stadium. White towels everywhere. It was the most exciting place to play baseball. We wanted to be them. We wanted to beat them. It was frustrating. At the same time there was a little envy. But baseball’s a cyclical game and sometimes the tables turn."
Would they have turned quite so drastically had Jayson Werth not left the Phils for the Nats? Maybe it would’ve been Werth finding out.