Outfielder flourishing as Nats' leadoff hitter

The Nationals wondered as far back as last September who would be their leadoff hitter in 2012.

Without an obvious internal candidate, it seemed the organization would seek an outside solution last winter. That didn't happen. It turned out the answer was already on the roster -- Jayson Werth, the high-priced free agent who struggled to meet expectations last season and missed three months this year with a broken left wrist.

Shortly after Werth finally returned from the disabled list on Aug. 2, Nats manager Davey Johnson installed him at the top of the batting order. There weren't many other palatable options. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have been tried before, but neither has a strong enough on-base percentage to thrive there. Rookie Steve Lombardozzi leads the team with 257 plate appearances batting first, but he's more suited to a utility role for now.

"Jayson's a heck of a leadoff guy," Johnson said. "He takes a lot of pitches. Works the pitcher. He can take you out of the ballpark. His on-base percentage is off the charts. And he doesn't mind leading off."

Werth isn't the prototypical leadoff batter at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. Even at age 33 he remains a good athlete with at least 19 stolen bases in three of the last four seasons. But he has been the perfect antidote over the last six weeks and is a big reason why only two teams, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Angels, have more runs scored than Washington since the All-Star break.

Werth's return has been a huge part of that. He's batting .322 since his return in 146 at-bats, and his on-base percentage is .407. Plus, he brings a power element most No. 1 hitters lack with 24 extra-base hits, including five homers, in just 66 games.

"Hitting at the top of the order in a lineup as potent as this one, it's all about getting on base and scoring runs," Werth said.

Werth is still waiting for full strength to return to his healed wrist. Figuring that might not happen this season, he ordered new bats in June that are an ounce-and-a-half lighter than his normal bats. It is the same bat he used upon his return from wrist surgery in 2007.

In 93 at-bats as the Nats' leadoff hitter, Werth is batting .323 with a .406 on-base percentage. That is in large part a return of his patience at the plate and his ability to recognize pitches and lay off them. Werth struck out a career-high 160 times in 2011. Since his return from the disabled list, he's walked 21 times and struck out just 26. Overall this season he has struck out 47 times and walked 35.

"You only lead off once a game," teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. "That's one of the best things about Jayson that I think gets overlooked. Came over here with a big contract and all this, and a lot of guys who have contracts like that aren't as willing to do as many things and be as flexible as he is."