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NATIONALS: Fifty Games Later, Michael Morse Has His Opening Day

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

WASHINGTON – Michael Morse ordered special black-and-red cleats to wear on April 5, with “Opening” printed on the back of the left shoe and “Day” on the right.

He wore them Saturday.

“It’s better late to the party than never,” Morse said, smiling.

Morse had plenty to celebrate last season, when he hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Washington Nationals. Though it took significantly longer than he expected and required considerable patience, the slugger made his debut Saturday in the Nationals’ 2-0 victory over Atlanta, returning after missing the first 50 games because of a strained lat muscle.

Morse went 0-for-4 in his return – far different from the “4-for-4 with four home runs, maybe a couple grand slams” he envisioned. What he didn’t forsee was the applause and a partial standing ovation from the 41,042 in attendance before his first at-bat in the second inning, which he said gave him goosebumps.

His day ended in the ninth with the Nationals holding the two-run lead, with manager Davey Johnson pulling him for defense and shifting Bryce Harper from center field to make room for Rick Ankiel.

“He looked good,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Don’t get the idea that I’m gonna be defending for you,’ but it worked out just perfect. He got four at-bats, and he should be fresh for [the next game].”

The Nationals started 29-21 without the player Johnson has said on multiple occasions was the team’s best hitter last year. His ability aside, Morse’s return provides a right-handed power bat to balance lefties Adam LaRoche and Harper and fills the void left by Jayson Werth, who broke his left wrist early last month and will be out until after the all-star break.

“Mikey Mo is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable player, so when you get a guy like that back in your lineup, everyone’s excited,” Xavier Nady said. “I don’t care what the situation is – he makes our lineup that much better, and obviously, a middle [of the lineup] presence, it’s a lot more difficult for opposing pitchers, and hopefully we do our part.”

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-handed slugger had a breakout season last year after he languished as a part-time player for Seattle for four seasons, was traded to the Nationals at the deadline in 2009 and was in his first year as a regular in the lineup.

Morse originally experienced tightness in his side on March 6 while taking practice swings before a spring training game against Atlanta. He thought he’d only miss a few games and served as a designated hitter a week later, but the soreness never went away.

Opening day came and went, and rather than joining Nationals cold in New York for a three-game series against the Mets on April 9, he instead made a rehab appearance at Single A Hagerstown. Early in that game, Morse aggravated the muscle making a throw from left field, and general manager Mike Rizzo said before the team’s home opener on April 12 that Morse would be shut down completely for six weeks as there was no viable surgical option.

“The injury itself, it’s something so rare,” Morse said. “It’s rare in baseball, so you know, I just dug down. I said, ‘I did this before in my career. I’ve done it too many times. You know, this is not something I can’t come back from.’”

Morse didn’t spend the six weeks completely inactive. He began swinging and throwing in mid-May, five weeks after the rehab appearance, and reported to the Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, Fla. on May 21 to begin working back into game shape.

He made three appearances for Single A Potomac, the first two as the designated hitter and the third in right field, and went 3-for-9 with an RBI. The results were encouraging, and on Friday, Morse was activated from the disabled list, with outfielder Corey Brown heading back to Triple A Syracuse.

The outfield lineup Johnson trotted out Saturday – Steve Lombardozzi in left, Harper in center and Morse in right – will be what the Nationals use going forward. Nady will give Lombardozzi a break on occasion against lefties, while Ankiel and Roger Bernadina will get a handful of bats as late-inning defensive replacements.

Washington gutted out wins in April despite struggling to hit and score runs, but began pulling it together in May. It’s a more favorable circumstance for Morse, who would prefer to ease back into the lineup one step at a time.

“I hope I’m that rabbit’s foot, but like I said, I’m not going to try to do anything different,” Morse said. “I’m not going to try to play out of my regular game or anything like that. I’m just gonna go out there and have some good at-bats and help this team win like they’ve been doing.”


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