Nationals slugger Michael Morse is a jolly guy. And as his rehab schedule and return to the major leagues approached following six week s in “shutdown mode,” that outward joy seemed to return in full. On Tuesday, in his first minor league rehab game for Class A Potomac, Morse was in classic form, flipping his bat as he approached home plate for batting practice and sporting a broad grin – a good sign for the Nationals.
And in between rounds of batting practice, he sidled up to Nationals advisor Pat Corrales and Potomac hitting coach Marlon Anderson. After he took five rounds of swings, Morse reported that he was feeling fine, pain-free from a strained lat muscle and was itching, if allowed, to return by the end of the week.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel awesome. I feel ready to play. I just need to get some at-bats and get my timing, hitting-wise, get some reads in the outfield and I’ll be ready.”
Morse will hit third on Tuesday for the Nationals as a designated hitter against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a Class A affiliate of the Texas Rangers, and is expected to play a full nine innings.
In batting practice on a warm Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals preseason projected cleanup hitter looked solid. His easy swing, which produced 31 home runs last season, sent at least five balls over the fence and sprayed the rest around the field.
“My hitting feels good,” he said. “It feels almost normal. That’s a big sigh of relief for me.”
But this may all depend how soon Morse returns to full strength throwing the ball. He said he took the opportunity over the past few days to improve his throwing mechanics and develop all the muscles in his arm.
“It seems like every day I’m doing more and more and more,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll do some outfield throws hopefully.”
After playing in three extended spring training games in Viera, Fla., Morse said he will likely play two games in Woodbridge for Potomac and head elsewhere. In Florida, Morse worked on everything from running the bases, lifting weights, hitting three times a day and throwing. “I did more in Viera than I do in the season by far,” he said.
Nationals officials and Morse have said they are hoping for his major league season debut on June 8 against the Boston Red Sox, where he can serve as a designated hitter. He missed the first two months of the season with that muscle strain which made swinging hard but throwing nearly impossible. But Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has said he may use Morse before that – and Morse didn’t hesitate to voice his support for that.
“I wish I knew when,” Morse said. “It seems like everyday the schedule is changing a little bit depending on how I feel. There’s still staying June 8, Boston. But I’m hoping sometime, if they let me, when the team comes back” to host the Atlanta Braves on Friday.
Asked if there was any pain in his muscle or side, Morse flashed that happy-go-lucky demeanor again.
“Nothing. My big toe hurts a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “That’s about it.”
Manager Davey Johnson is pushing for Morse to return sooner than the June 8 date preferred by trainers. Morse has not been playing outfield or throwing with much consistency, but “he doesn't have to throw anybody out to be a candidate to be a call-up,” Johnson said. Even if Morse does not play the field right away, Johnson wants to use Morse as a pinch-hitter off the bench, and for him to be a strategy-changing threat to opposing managers. "He's going to be Marilyn Monroe — everybody looking at him," Johnson said.
Trainers have targeted June 8 because the Nationals will open an interleague series in Boston, where Morse could serve as the designated hitter. “We’re trying to expedite that,” Johnson said. “Why waste those at-bats in Potomac? That’s kind of my feeling.”
Staff writer Adam Kilgore contributed to this report from Miami.