IF THIS IS TO BE rightfielder Jayson Werth's final season with the Phillies, he is determined to make it a memorable one.
Werth, who will be a free agent at the end of the season and likely a very expensive one, continued to play like the All-Star he was a year ago, when he batted .268, clubbed 36 home runs and drove in 99 runs.
If anything, Werth, who turns 31 on May 20, has been even better in what Phillies fans hope won't be his swan song in red pinstripes.
He showcased two of his more obvious skills in yesterday's 5-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Citizens Bank Park, slamming one of the Phillies' three solo homers and throwing out Omar Infante at home plate in the first inning to douse an Atlanta threat. The homer was the 100th of his career. He also drove in the first Phillies run when he was hit by a pitch in the first inning.
Werth is hitting .349 with seven homers and a team-leading 26 RBI, figures that if maintained would yield 37 homers and 136 RBI and make him a prime target for any team willing to break the bank for an outfielder with power, speed, a cannon arm and excellent defense. A common point of reference is Matt Holliday's 7-year, $120 million contract with St. Louis.
Considering that the Phillies already are committed to long-term megabucks contracts to core players Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Roy Halladay, and their payroll this season is a franchise-record $140 million-plus, keeping Werth could prove overly pricey, particularly if the decision-makers in the front office believe outfield prospect Domonic Brown will be ready for The Show in 2011.
It is a similar situation to 2007, when centerfielder Aaron Rowand had a 27-homer season but was allowed to leave for San Francisco because the thinking was that Shane Victorino was ready to become a regular.
"He wants to play here, he likes to play here," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of Werth. "He likes our team. He's determined to have a big year. This is his free-agent year and he's definitely got something to show he can accomplish."
Not that Werth is looking that far ahead, but he doesn't need to be reminded that he was a role player in previous stints with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers, and missed the entire 2006 season while recovering from surgery on his left wrist. He was signed by the Phillies' then-general manager, Pat Gillick, to be a platoon rightfielder. It turned out to be one of the best acquisitions of the Gillick era, or any era in team history.
"I definitely feel at home here in Philadelphia," Werth said when asked about his future beyond this season. "I love playing for the Phillies. Coming to work with these guys every day could be tough to beat.
"That said, this is a business. I've said it before, I've played my whole career for this season right here. I plan to see it through."
But Werth wasn't the only reason the Phillies finished the homestand 7-3 and left for Colorado with a two-game lead in the National League East.
Placido Polanco and Victorino also homered, no small feat considering the blustery conditions, and three relievers combined to retire all 12 batters from the sixth inning on, with a combined five strikeouts.
They preserved the victory for Cole Hamels (3-2), who followed up perhaps his best start of the season, a no-decision against St. Louis on May 4 in which he pitched eight innings, gave up only one run and struck out eight, with one of his more perplexing ones. He threw 97 pitches in five innings, 39 in a potentially disastrous fifth when he walked two (including a leadoff pass to opposing pitcher Kenshin Kawakami), gave up four hits and all three of the Braves' runs.
"He kind of lost it," Manuel said of Hamels' fifth-inning struggles. "He lost about everything he had. He lost his command and his stuff. All of a sudden he didn't have nothing."
Hamels wasn't about to disagree.
"I put myself in a tough situation," he admitted. "I was throwing a lot of balls, and when that happens the crowd dies. The energy dies.
"Sometimes you're able to go out there, get ahead of hitters and get them out fast. It almost seems too easy. Then there are times when you're struggling to throw that first strike."
Fortunately for Hamels, Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge didn't just bail him out, they waterproofed the situation on a day where so many hot-dog wrappers blew onto the field, it seemed as if a tornado had demolished a Nathan's stand on Coney Island. Lidge pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his first save of the season, although two of the outs went to the warning track, and that made for a benchmark perhaps as significant as Werth's 100th dinger.
"It definitely flows better," Durbin said of Lidge's return to the closer role after opening the season on the disabled list with a sore elbow. "There's no wondering who's going to do what in the ninth inning. You can piece things together a little differently in the sixth, seventh and eighth.
"Those guys who close out games are a special breed. Having a guy as good as Brad, when he's healthy, is outstanding."