It was after midnight on Thursday morning when Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was Jayson Werth, and he could hardly contain his excitement.
“I’m ready,” Werth told him.
On his way home from what would be his final rehab game, Werth finally felt he couldn’t wait any longer. He was ready to return to the major league team, to contribute to their playoff stretch run and to face Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday night.
Seventy-five games after Werth slid in right field at Nationals Park — facing Hamels and the Phillies in an odd bit of symmetry — and snapped his left wrist, Werth was back in the starting lineup, playing center field and batting sixth.
“That’s what I was waiting for,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “For him to say he was ready.”
Shortstop Ian Desmond will remain on the disabled list for another few weeks with an oblique strain, and Wilson Ramos is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee. But for the first time this season the Nationals had Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper in the same starting lineup.
“We’re getting there,” Johnson said. “This is the closest we’ve been in a long time.”
In order to make room for Werth on the 25-man roster, the Nationals put Henry Rodriguez on the disabled list with a lower back strain. Rodriguez has been receiving treatment on his back for at least a week.
Because his playing time will be cut significantly with Werth back, the team considered sending Tyler Moore back to Triple-A so he could get at-bats, but with Rodriguez banged up they opted to go with what they felt was their best 25 at this time.
Johnson spoke with both Rodriguez and Moore on Thursday afternoon. He stressed to Rodriguez to take the time to get healthy and be ready to help the Nationals as they make their playoff push late in the season. And he discussed with Moore the way the rookie’s role would change, and how his offensive approach should adjust accordingly. He also suggested he look into playing winter ball this offseason to compensate for some of his lost playing time.
“The only misgiving I have is Tyler,” Johnson said. “He’s just too young and too good a talent (to be a bench player). I’m going to have to be real creative and try and get him some playing time.”
But that was an issue for another day as Thursday was about the Nationals getting one of their leaders back on the field and in the lineup. Werth hit .296 in nine rehab games, and really began to come on at the plate in the final three or four games. He has yet to play nine innings on back-to-back days but the Nationals’ reports were that he was moving around in the outfield well and he looked to be getting more and more comfortable offensively.
With the Phillies and Hamels in town for one more game, their thinking was simple: why not?
When Werth was injured that Sunday night in May, he was 1-for-2 against Hamels and hitting .276 on the season with a .372 on-base percentage and a .439 slugging percentage.
He’ll play center field as well as right, with the move of Moore and Roger Bernadina more permanently to the Nationals’ bench freeing up Johnson’s options to give him rest when he needs, and to rest Bryce Harper when necessary as well.
“He’s a character,” Johnson said, asked if he was looking forward to having Werth back. “He’ll be on me. I’ve kind of missed that. He’s such a gifted athlete it’s great to have him back.”