By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; D01
SAN DIEGO -- Nyjer Morgan plays with the same style, the same brashness mixed with buoyancy, that sparked the Washington Nationals closer to respectability last year. The substance, though, has gone missing. Morgan, by his admission, is enduring "a terrible month," and it only worsened Saturday night.
J.D. Martin returned to the major leagues, and pitched well enough for the Nationals to win. But he made his worst pitch at the worst time, and the San Diego Padres made Washington's defense pay for two crucial mistakes in a 4-2 Nationals defeat before 29,556 at Petco Park. As Martin swallowed a hard-luck loss and Morgan made another mistake in center field, the Nationals continued their win-one-lose-one West Coast trip, dropping back to .500 after 50 games.
Morgan's misplay was a footnote in the loss, not as immediately costly as Adam Kennedy's error in the first inning that led to a three-run homer, the only runs the Padres needed. But it contributed to a larger, troubling trend: Morgan, in place of the player who ignited the Nationals last year, has been hurting them.
"Nyjer is our leadoff hitter, our center fielder," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's just going to have to come out of it. He's having a hard time getting on base right now. He's having a hard time getting his bunts down in the right places. I know he's frustrated with it."
Morgan went 0 for 4 Saturday, adding to a miserable offensive month. He is batting .202 with a .265 on-base percentage and a .234 slugging percentage in May. He has been hurt by a .299 batting average on balls in play, 50 points below his average. Morgan, typically, remained outwardly confident.
"There's nothing I can do right now," Morgan said. "I'm just cold. Terrible month. Definitely May showers. But June's gonna boom. Just having bad luck right now. Working counts, battling. Right now, it's just not happening. I got to get Dr. Freeze off my twig right now."
On defense, Morgan made a familiar foible. Leading off the inning, Nick Hundley crunched a deep fly ball to left center. Morgan sprinted to the wall and leaped on the run. The ball fell short of his jump and rattled around after hitting the base of the wall. Hundley raced for a triple as Josh Willingham retrieved the ball.
The play added to Morgan's troubles on balls hit to the center field fence. Last week, he played a role in two inside-the-park home runs hit to spots similar to Hundley's drive. This time, it led to a run when Chris Denorfia chopped to third.
Bench coach John McLaren, who coaches outfield defense, suggested to Riggleman that Morgan play deeper, which would allow him to settle under balls at the wall as opposed to flying into the fence.
"I don't think so," Morgan said. "I'm just missing it. I'm there. I'm just missing it."
As ever, Morgan vowed he'll return to his best form. This season, Morgan's -- 12.1 UZR/150, a statistical measure of a player's defensive efficiency, ranks third-worst among center fielders. Last year, his 39.4 UZR/150, had he stayed healthy enough to qualify, would have led all outfielders.
"Right now, it's just a bad month," Morgan said. "I can't really explain. A lot of guys kind of fold when you get a little pressure in situations like this. For me, it's like, whatever, man. I just got to go out there and keep on grinding. Eventually, they're going to pop in my glove."
Martin produced one of the better lines of his career. In six innings he surrendered one earned run on four hits and no walks while striking out five, which tied a career high. But he yielded three unearned runs on one home run in the first inning. Against Padres starter Mat Latos, the Nationals never recovered.
With Scott Olsen -- who played catch Saturday for the first time since his last start -- on the disabled list, Martin will receive another chance in five days. He'll have to hope for better support and better luck.
In the first inning, Martin retired the first two batters he faced. The third, Adrian Gonzalez grounded to second base. Typically flawless, Adam Kennedy flubbed the grounder in shallow right field, where he had shifted to counter Gonzalez's power.
"You've got to pitch above that," Riggleman said.
Martin could not. Chase Headley followed by ripping a single to center field. Facing Hundley next, Martin unfurled a pitch they could have photographed and placed in the dictionary next to "hanging curveball." Hundley blasted it over the left field fence, giving the Padres a 3-0 lead, all the runs unearned.
"I don't get distracted by that kind of stuff," Martin said. In the end, though, it helped cost his team the game.