By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Nationals are the hottest team in baseball, as incredible as that sounds. There are as many theories as to how they've pulled this off as there are fans at Nationals Park. More, perhaps.
My theory: Nyjer Morgan.
A lot of guys are contributing, no doubt. As a team, the Nats' hitting has been streaky all season, and they happen to be in a hot streak at a time when the young starters are settling down and the bullpen has improved. Then there is the managerial change, the trades and Adam Dunn's move to first base, which has been a pleasant surprise so far.
But I think it all began June 30, when the Nats acquired Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett from Pittsburgh. Or rather, on July 3, when Morgan made his first start for the Nats. Pre-Morgan, the Nats were 21st in the majors in runs scored. Since Morgan's arrival, they're third. Their on-base percentage has increased 18 points. They were 23-54 when he arrived. They are 17-18 since.
Morgan's numbers here: a .362 average, a .407 on-base percentage and a .449 slugging percentage, with 18 steals. He has a .981 fielding percentage, with two errors.
In fact, the only question is whether Morgan's biggest contribution has come as the leadoff hitter, or the center fielder. The answer: yes.
"The leadoff position is a real challenge," interim manager Jim Riggleman said recently. "It takes a special guy to handle that role and get on base and make the other pitcher work and give information to the other players about what the guy is throwing, and at the same time cause havoc to the other team. He's given us all that, but as much or more than that he's given us a guy in center field who can really go get the ball. . . . He's really played a great center field, he's been pretty special out there. Balls have been hit off the bat that we've said in the dugout, 'No way he's getting to that'; he's tracked them down, so that's been huge."
To say Mike Rizzo is happy about the biggest deal of his brief tenure as acting general manager would be an understatement.
"It's made a huge difference in the attitude of the club, the energy level of the club and the attitude in the clubhouse," he said. "Beyond that, though, the actual baseball side of it, it was a good fit for our club.
"We'd been looking for a true, prototypical leadoff man that can play center field and in a perfect world would hit left-handed. He checked all the boxes off for that. He's a plus-plus base stealer and a really good guy in the clubhouse. It was everything that we dreamt it could be."
That's high praise for a man with only 192 major league games under his belt. At the age of 7, he saw the U.S. hockey team at the Calgary Olympics, and he fell in love with the sport. At 16, he left his home in San Francisco to pursue a hockey career in Canada. For four years he played for such teams as the North Okanagan Kings, the Nelson Leafs and the Delta Ice Hawks. In the summers he played baseball and was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 1998, but didn't sign. He finally made it to the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League for seven games before being released.
It was time to concentrate on baseball. At age 20 he enrolled at Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, where he played two seasons. He spent five years in Pittsburgh's minor league system before making his big league debut on Sept. 1, 2007. Despite his circuitous route, Morgan denies being a late bloomer or ever feeling "behind" his teammates who devoted all their time to baseball.
"It wasn't my time," he shrugs. "I can play. I can play this game. I'm a natural ballplayer. No coulda-shoulda about it. My time wasn't like anybody else's time."
Nothing about Morgan is like anybody else on the Nationals. You can actually see the energy coming off him when he's at the plate and especially when he's on base. Talk to anybody about the Nats, and they'll mention how much fun he is to watch. It's an intangible, but that doesn't make it less real.
That's "just who I am as a person," Morgan said. "Full of energy, full of nothing but positive vibes. Just enjoy what I do."
So do his teammates. And no one appreciates a good outfielder more than a starting pitcher, right, John Lannan?
"He's a great center fielder," Lannan said. "He also adds a certain flair to the game. We need that spark in the clubhouse and on the field. He brings a certain energy that this team needed. He's Tony Plush, you know? That's his game guy. It's a lot of fun watching him play. A ball hit to center, I have a feeling he's going to catch it."
Morgan is big on nicknames; Tony Plush is his own creation, to signify his on-field self. He's also begun bestowing monikers upon his teammates. For instance, Ryan Zimmerman is Peter Franchise. Has he given Lannan a nickname yet?
Are you upset you don't have one? Lannan laughs and shakes his head.
"I'll get one."
Morgan should have time to rename the entire roster. As happy as the Nats are with him, he is happy with the Nats. He says he loves the Washington area and plans to remain here -- he currently lives in Arlington -- during the offseason.
He'll likely make some trips this winter to Verizon Center to watch some hockey. Asked if he'd like to skate with the Washington Capitals at some point, his eyes light up. He still follows the game, and the Penguins invited him to skate with them during his time in Pittsburgh. (Ted Leonsis, it's your move.)
So, Nyjer, who's the better player, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby? He diplomatically says, "They're both good, two different players," then adds, "One's more exciting than the other."
Which one? "Ovechkin."
Why? "He gives something that the fans like to see."
And that's something Nyjer Morgan understands perfectly well.