On March 6, as he warmed up for a spring training game in Orlando, Michael Morse felt tightness in the muscle on his back, underneath his right armpit. He wondered if he should tell Manager Davey Johnson. At first, he figured he would just play, but he mentioned it to Johnson, just to be safe. The Nationals scratched him. “It’s a tweak,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Just a day.”
“Three months later,” Morse said today, standing in the Nationals clubhouse, “here I am.”
Morse called tonight’s game, weather permitting, “my opening day.” The Nationals reinstated him from the disabled list, and he is scheduled to make his season debut tonight against the Braves, batting fourth and playing right field. The Nationals optioned Corey Brown back to Class AAA Syracuse to clear room for him.
Morse originally thought he would miss two or three days with a strained lat. Then he hoped he could be ready for opening day. Then he figured he would miss eight to 10 games. Then he briefly thought he may need season-ending surgery before the Nationals placed him on “shutdown mode” for six weeks.
Finally, after he played five innings Thursday night in his final minor league rehab game, Morse will join the Nationals after they went 29-21 without the slugger Johnson called “our best hitter last year.”
If someone had suggested to Morse back on March 6 that his injury would unfold as it has, he said, “I would have laughed in their face.”
Morse said after his rehab, he has no limitations. “Throw me in there,” he said. “If I wasn’t 100 percent, I would be here.” Manager Davey Johnson plans to play him on a regular, everyday basis.
“Last I looked, he was about 6-5, 250 pounds,” Johnson said. “He looks in great shape. I’ll treat like any other player. If he looks tired, I’ll give him a day off.”
Morse will bat cleanup tonight against Braves left-hander Mike Minor, which Johnson said will provide more protection for No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman. Against right-handed starters, Morse will likely bat fifth behind first baseman Adam LaRoche.
“Our lineup is predominantly a left-handed hitting lineup,” Johnson said. With Zimmerman not yet hitting up to his capability, “we really haven’t had a right-handed presence in the lineup. It would bring relief to my lineup. Late in games, instead of going to the left-hander all the time, we’ll have Michael Morse in the lineup. Which is going to be less convenient for the opposing manager.”
The Nationals are still not whole, with Jayson Werth still sidelined for another two months with a broken wrist. But they have stayed afloat with Morse, and with him they will receive a significant boost in their effort to keep their grip on first place.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Morse said. “I still there’s so much more potential we’ve got. I don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet. When we do, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Morse will predominantly play right field, with Bryce Harper in center and a combination of Steve Lombardozzi and Xavier Nady in left, mostly Lombardozzi. Morse prepared for this year as a left fielder, playing left at the end of last season and early in spring training. But he has started 74 games in right field in his career, including 64 in 2010. “Outfield is outfield,” he said.
Morse believes his arm strength will not be comprised by the injury, that he can let loose throws like normal. (“I mean, not like Rick Ankiel,” he said.)
Morse believes his rehab process actually improved his throwing from the outfield. He was drafted as a shortstop and played first base for most of last season, which meant he often threw sidearm. During his extended throwing regiment in Florida, Morse worked with Nationals instructor Gary Cathcart, who forced him to throw over the top, like an outfielder.
“He really, really helped me,” Morse said. “He made everyone of my throws was from the same spot. At first, I was like, ‘Jeez, relax.’ But he really helped me out. … I throw like an outfielder now.”
Last night in the clubhouse at Potomac, Nationals instructor Tony Tarasco sidled next to Morse and told him, “Just be yourself. Don’t try to be a hero.” Morse smiled, knowing his time away from the Nationals was almost over.
In his locker, Morse had a pair of spikes with “Opening” stitched into the heel of the left shoe and “Day” stitched into the heel of the right. He planned to wear at Wrigley Field on April 5. Instead, he’ll wear them tonight.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Morse said.
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