Commentary

Werth packing plenty of punch for Phils

In second season as a regular with Philadelphia, right fielder making a major impact

Originally Published: September 22, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The champagne celebration and parade down Broad Street were too cool for words. But when Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth reflects upon the 2008 World Series, one of his most vivid memories revolves around a brief yet telling interlude in the Citizens Bank Park infield.

Werth can't recall the precise sequence and declines to identify the player who engaged him in conversation. But he was standing at second base when an unnamed Tampa Bay Ray sidled up and asked a question that told him all he needed to know about Philadelphia's impact on opposing psyches.

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJayson Werth has already established career highs in home runs (34) and RBIs (90) this season.

"One of their infielders came up to me and said, 'Do you like it here?'" Werth recalls. "He was so distraught in the middle of the game about the people in this town, and I knew then that we had them.

"They were so rattled, because they didn't feel like they could even walk down the street. They were uncomfortable just being in Philadelphia. Look at Evan Longoria -- he didn't get a hit the whole World Series. [Longoria actually went 1-for-20.] I'm not saying it's because of what the fans did. But I'm not saying it wasn't, either."

The Santa Claus and Michael Irvin stories have been done to death, of course, but Philadelphia's reputation for targeting opponents and crushing spirits is well established. When the Rays complained about Phillies fans throwing mustard packets and yelling obscenities at wives and kids in Tampa Bay's family section, it reinforced the national perception of Philly fans as overbearing and lacking in couth.

Conversely, the hard-boiled Philly fan base can provide incentive for the home boys: If you're mentally soft, you fold. But if you have a strong athletic constitution, run out every ground ball and put up the numbers, they'll laud you, love you and help bring the best out of you.

They've sure brought out the best in Jayson Werth.

As the Phillies head to Florida on Tuesday for a three-game series with the Marlins, they have a magic number of six to clinch their third straight National League East title. Werth is a big reason why.

After establishing himself as an everyday player in 2008, Werth is enjoying a Ryan Ludwick-caliber, bust-out year at age 30. He made his first All-Star team in July, and he's established career highs for home runs (34), RBIs (90), doubles (26), walks (79), hits (143) and extra-base hits (61).

That's not all. Werth has 14 stolen bases and 11 outfield assists and is wearing out opposing pitchers with a major league-high 4.50 pitches per plate appearance. With his 1.090 OPS against lefty pitching, he's given the Phillies the right-handed pop they needed to complement Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez in the batting order.

"He's very important to balance out our lineup," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "He's one of the guys who can deliver the knockout punch."

Heartland surfer

Maybe it's the disheveled, dirty blond hair, the lanky frame, the loose-fitting wardrobe or the look that suggests he has a skateboard stashed in his locker, but Werth radiates a West Coast vibe.

"He looks like a California surfer," says Pat Gillick, former Phillies general manager and the man in charge when Baltimore selected Werth with the 22nd pick in the draft 12 years ago.

It's always been that way. When Werth was a young prospect in Baltimore's spring camp and managers Ray Miller and Mike Hargrove summoned him to tell him he was going to the minors, they invariably made reference to his Golden State heritage.

"They'd say, 'We know you're from California,' and I didn't know what the hell they were talking about," Werth says. "It still happens. I'm this 'laid-back, California guy.' I guess people think I'm lazy or something."

In reality, Werth is as middle-America as they come. He was born and raised in Springfield, Ill., the home of another renowned string bean: Abraham Lincoln. And from the outset, genetics decreed that he would gravitate toward sports.

Charlie Manuel He's very important to balance out our lineup. He's one of the guys who can deliver the knockout punch.

-- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel on Jayson Werth

Werth's mother, Kim, was a track star at the University of Florida and competed in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials. His biological father, Jeff Gowan, was a baseball and football standout at Illinois State and briefly played outfield in the Cardinals' minor league system.

Werth's maternal grandfather, "Ducky" Schofield, spent 19 years in the majors as a shortstop with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and four other clubs. His uncle, Dick Schofield, played 14 seasons for the Angels and three other clubs in the '80s and '90s. One of his younger sisters, Hannah, plays volleyball at Nebraska, and another, Hillary, is on the track team at UCLA.

For as long as Werth remembers -- since age 5, when people began calling him "Jay-Bird" -- athletics were the focal point of his universe. It didn't matter if the neighborhood kids were playing wiffleball, backyard badminton or basketball on an eight-foot hoop as elementary schoolers. They always played for keeps.

"I always tell people that I came from the school of, 'It's not how you play the game -- it's whether you win or lose,'" Werth says. "My mom was a tough mom. She was one of those soccer moms who was yelling on the sidelines to do better."

Kim got divorced, then remarried in 1985, and Jayson's stepfather played a central role in his baseball development. Dennis Werth played in the majors as a backup first baseman with the Royals and Yankees from 1979 through 1982, and he was only too happy to build a batting cage in the backyard for his stepson, disassemble it and put it back up when the family moved from Springfield to nearby Chatham.

Jayson stood 5-foot-8, 110 pounds in the eighth grade, and he was utterly fearless. At age 11, he donned the chest protector and shin guards during a tournament when the team's regular catcher was stricken with migraine headaches. He loved taking charge behind the plate, and he lived for big confrontations in the batter's box.

"He has nerves of steel," Dennis Werth says. "He loves to be put in that moment of truth where, 'It's me and you, buddy, and I'm gonna beat you.' It's kind of funny. When he was growing up and we'd play another team from another state, people would say, 'We'll see you at the ballpark.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, you better pack a lunch.'"

The Orioles drafted Werth as a catcher in 1997, gave him an $850,000 signing bonus, then nurtured him for four years before trading him to Toronto for pitcher John Bale in 2000. The Blue Jays, flush with catchers at the time, assessed Werth's wiry, 6-5 frame and decided he might be a better long-term bet in the outfield.

In his first game at the Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater, Fla., Werth lost sight of a fly ball and stood motionless as it banged off the fence behind him. When he looked imploringly toward the infield, he saw his teammate, second base prospect Orlando Hudson, "rolling on the ground" with laughter.

The outfield transition was generally smooth after that, but some baseball people think Werth could have made it regardless of where he played.

"I always thought he should have stayed at catcher," Gillick says. "He's got a good arm, he can run and I thought he received the ball very well. And it's one of the toughest positions to fill. You don't find many catchers who hit 30 home runs."

Long and winding road

Werth is grateful that he's landed in a city where he fits, in a clubhouse where he feels so comfortable, playing for a manager who respects him and his abilities. But a little part of him wonders if professional bliss could have come sooner.

He hit 16 homers for the Dodgers in 2004, but A.J. Burnett broke his wrist with a 96 mph fastball the following spring, and Werth endured two wasted years when the injury was misdiagnosed. The Dodgers declined to offer Werth a contract in December 2006, and Gillick, who remembered him from the Glenwood High School days, sprung into action.

"I remember thinking at the time, 'This guy is a good player. Why would they non-tender him?'" Utley says. "Just playing GM in the offseason, I thought he would be a good addition."

Werth plays the game with a flair that makes him fun to watch. He'll field one-hop line drives to right field and come up throwing in hopes of beating slow runners to first base. And if faster runners don't pay attention, they'll suffer the consequences. Just ask Milwaukee's Corey Hart, who was nailed by Werth on his way back to the bag after a single in the Division Series last fall.

The 2008 playoffs began on a discouraging note for Werth, who looked lost and out of sync after going hitless with three strikeouts against Yovani Gallardo and the Brewers' bullpen in the NLDS opener. In the car after breakfast the following day, his stepfather tried to help.

"I told him, 'You've got your bat wrapped around your head so far, you can't get it to the zone,'" Dennis Werth says. "And Jayson goes, 'Well, that's something I have to work on this winter. I can't correct that now.'"

Or so he thought. Werth arrived at the park early before Game 2 and did some tinkering in the cage. In his first at-bat against CC Sabathia, he lined a double to center field. An inning later, he smoked a double to left. So much for that wrapping problem.

After a nondescript League Championship Series against the Dodgers, Werth hit .444 (8-for-18) with a .778 slugging percentage against Tampa Bay. The only thing left was to grab a champagne bottle and commence spraying.

"It's like Pat Burrell told me: 'If we can win here, it'll be better than anywhere,'" Werth says.

Burrell was correct on that score. The Phillies rank third in the majors in attendance this season and are on track to draw 3.5 million fans for the first time in franchise history. The city has embraced its champions and warmed to Manuel, the manager once derisively referred to as "Elmer Befuddled."

Werth appreciates the support, but a small piece of him misses the pre-World Series Phillies die-hards, who seemed desperate and just a little edgier.

"I don't want to say they've gone soft after winning it, because I don't think they have," Werth says. "But they might have to be reminded. I don't want them to change. I want them to stay hungry and be the same fans who helped us win it last year."

Werth wants the crowds in Philly to know that he hasn't changed one bit. He's as motivated as ever, and perfectly comfortable stepping in the box with the game on the line.

Depending on events over the next two weeks, the Phillies will begin the postseason against either Los Angeles or Colorado. Whichever team it is, it better pack a lunch.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer