WASHINGTON - For months, Jayson Werth had been dangling in a gentle limbo between what-will-be and what-might-have-been.

He had been asked repeatedly about his decision to leave the Phillies, a team that won four straight division titles, for one whose grandest tradition is Teddy Roosevelt always losing the Presidents' Race. Last December in Washington, when he was officially introduced after signing that 7-year, $126 million monster deal with a franchise that had somehow managed to lose 298 games over the previous three seasons. This spring, in Viera, Fla., when he officially began his Nationals career. Over the weekend in New York, where the Nationals played the Mets before returning home.

That all changed at 7:09 p.m. yesterday with the first pitch of the first game Werth played for his new team against his old team. What had been all speculation, anticipation and empty guessing finally became the reality of actually playing against the team with which he became a star.

This night, at least, belonged to Werth. He doubled, homered, walked and scored twice in Washington's 7-4 win.

Naturally, he downplayed it all afterward.

"With the guys they've got going the next 2 nights [Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee], this is one we definitely needed," he said. "Once the game started, it was just business as usual. It was good to see those guys, but I've sort of closed that chapter in my life. Just kind of moving on."

Charlie Manuel wasn't so sure.

"I'm sure he was excited to go against us," the Phillies manager said. "He played like that. He was intense. He came out to play us."

Said Werth with a smile: "Anytime you hit a home run, you're going to have some satisfaction. Was it extra special because it came against those guys? Probably a little bit. I was just trying to perform well for Charlie. He hasn't seen me play in a while."

Still, the most striking part of this reunion-by-schedule was how utterly anticlimactic the whole episode turned out to be.

Part of that was unforeseen circumstance. Intermittent rain all afternoon kept the tarp on the field, which meant no batting practice on the field. No batting practice on the field meant no fraternizing around the cage, complete with exaggerated handshakes and emotional man hugs.

Weather also might have been the reason the anticipated invasion of Phillies fans never materialized. The announced attendance was only 13,413. The reaction when Werth stepped to the plate the first time in the bottom of the first was muted and mixed. There were some boos each time he caught a fly ball to retire a Phillies hitter, but they seemed oddly flat.

"I was kind of waiting for it," he said, smiling again. "And once it happened, I thought it was kind of funny."

And while there has been plenty of schadenfreude over the fact that Werth came into last night batting only .200 and that a 10th-inning error helped cost the Nationals a game against Florida last week, time also has allowed the reality to sink in that anybody in his right mind would have taken the deal Washington offered, which softens the impact of his departure.

And, of course, the fact that the Phillies and Nationals will play each other 17 more times this year and six series a season for the foreseeable future takes some of the edge off.

Here's another thing that didn't really hit home until last night, though. As significant as losing their rightfielder and No. 5 hitter might have been to the Phillies, his willingness to cast his lot with the forlorn Nationals just might have had an even bigger impact farther down I-95.

Looming high above the leftfield bleachers at Nationals Park is a humongous picture of Werth. It's 35-feet high and dominates that sector of the stadium.

"It is a big picture," he said with a smile. "I was surprised to see a picture of myself that big. I remember when I played in Los Angeles. I think they still have it there, down the foul lines. In the parking lot, you can see these huge pictures of, at the time I was there in'05, I think J.D. Drew and Jeff Kent. And I remember telling myself that one day that's gonna be me. So here I am."

Yes, here he is. And for the next 7 years, there will be no hiding from the expectations that come along with the big bucks and the promise that some of the winning magic he was associated with in Philadelphia will somehow rub off. Like it or not, he will be the focal point of this team for a while.

"It's not that big a deal," he said. "Playing in the market over there in Philly, playing in the postseason as many times as we did. Big stage. The pressure of the postseason definitely outweighs the pressure of the regular season by a hundred. So it's not that challenging."

Jayson Werth vs. Phillies has become a long-running soap opera, and it isn't over yet. The Nationals visit Citizens Bank Park 3 weeks from last night. After that, maybe, these faceoffs can settle into a routine.

"This is just kind of a warmup," he said before the game. "I'm looking forward to [coming back to Philadelphia]. It's going to be weird, I'm sure, but I'll have to get used to it."

He'd better. Everybody else, too. Because this rivalry, like the season itself, figures to be a marathon rather than a sprint. *

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