MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins

2013 has been nothing but a disappointment for the Washington Nationals. After all the bluster and hype, the team expected to dominate the National League saw their season end almost before it even began. Injuries, underperformance and regular old bad luck stopped the Nats in their tracks. In a move reeking of desperation, they fired their hitting coach at the end of July. The barn door closed just as the last of the horses disappeared from view.

Except that the Nationals are not dead yet. The second wildcard gives them new life and a glimmer of hope. A glimmer that would have been snuffed out long ago were it not for Jayson Werth.

Simply put: Jayson Werth has been an absolute monster since coming off the disabled list at the beginning of June. Strike that: Jayson Werth has been a monster in 2013. Full stop. His .324/.398/.542 line with 23 home runs makes him one of the five best hitters in baseball this season. That is basically David Ortiz‘s line except it comes from an outfielder in a pitcher’s park, not a DH.

Werth spent nearly a month on the disabled list with a hamstring injury only to return better than ever. Since his return he’s look a lot more like that man the Nationals threw more than $100 million after the 2010 season. In the second half of the 2013, Jayson Werth is producing at a level equal to that of MVP candidate and international wonder boy Mike Trout. While Werth can’t match Trout’s OBP insanity, he’s producing with power. Lots of power.

Werth isn’t alone in getting hot down the stretch, as teammate Ryan Zimmerman has eight home runs over the last two weeks, helping the Nationals to a sixth straight win yesterday, a stretch of eight wins in nine games for Washington.

The Nats might be 5.5 games behind the Reds in the Wild Card race but, as Jayson Werth knows all too well, stranger things have happened.

On September 12, 2007, Jayson Werth’s Philadelphia Phillies sat 7 games behind the New York Mets in the National League East division standings. The Mets famously slumped home, going just 5-12 to finish the year while the Werth and his Phillies went 13-4 to reel in their rivals.

If Werth and his brothers in Natitude expect to pull off a similar miracle, they’re going to need help from the Reds (or Cards and Pirates) in addition to taking care of their own business. The first order of business, something they’ve done very well, is beat up on lesser teams.

Jayson Werth is no stranger to delivering big hits for Washington in addition to his previous season-saving experience in Philly. Few Nats fans or beard enthusiasts will ever forget this walkoff shot from the 2012 playoffs, forcing Game Five against St. Louis. (The ending of which is not germane to this discussion.)

Even though Werth’s numbers are his best since his walk year in 2010, he has a slightly different profile at the plate. A higher contact rate overall with a particular jump on pitches in the zone show Werth is seeing his pitch hitting it hard better in 2013 than ever before. Fewer walks but also fewer strikeouts to produce similar results at at time when offense is rarer than ever. His .405 wOBA in 2013 produces a 162 wRC+, compared to .396/146 in 2010.

When the Nats inked Werth to his massive, seven-year deal, this is the player they thought they were getting. Perhaps not this good but a player capable of hitting more than a dozen home runs a year to go with the excellent on-base ability Werth has shown his entire career. The injuries will mount for an aging player (Werth is 34) but these years on the front half of the deal or those which the Nats expected to pay for the backloaded decline years.

Can Jayson Werth replicate this breakout/bounce back/miracle season again next season, when the Nats will do their darnedest not to dig another huge hole? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter for the next three weeks. The Nationals know the odds are stacked squarely against them but they will try to continue this improbable run.

The Nats schedule toughens up for the remainder of the season, with four games against the cupcake Marlins and three against the hit-or-miss Phillies team. A midweek set against Atlanta and trips to St. Louis and Arizona to close the year show just how tall their task really is, even after this great stretch.

Not even the very, very good Jayson Werth will help them overtake one of three very good teams to make a surprise appearance in the Wild Card game. He’s going to need help. One thing is for sure: they wouldn’t even be this close without him.