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Washington Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan keeps an even keel despite spring struggles

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 12:04 AM

VIERA, FLA. - By all accounts, he is doing everything right. Showing up early. Doing extra work. Saying the right things. Acting the right way. Respecting the game. Trying to internalize the rhythms of baseball in a way he's never done before. But Nyjer Morgan's sad numbers are right there on the stats page, and those challengers for his center field job - maybe it's just one's imagination, but they seem to be getting bolder, and they seem to be gaining ground.

Confronted with this evidence Monday, and asked about his level of frustration, Morgan, 30, fell back on the standard veteran's trove of spring cliches: It's early. It's just a matter of getting the timing back. I just need to get at-bats.

"I'm not frustrated - because I know what I can do, and everybody else knows what I can do," Morgan said. "[Sunday] was the first time I felt really good at the plate. Everything else is just working on timing and all the other things that go into it."

And the vote of confidence from Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman was even stronger than the one Morgan gave himself:

"It's not just early - it's extremely early," Riggleman said on Sunday. "The larger bit of work Nyjer's done - a .283 career hitter - that's what we're looking at. There's a track record of success. Nyjer may be our hardest worker in camp right now. He's doing everything he can to turn it around. But I don't want him pressing. I just want him to play baseball and ignite us."

Right now, the ignition switch is busted. In Sunday's game, Morgan went 0 for 3, dropping his spring batting average to .063 (1 for 16). He would like to be working on his base running during games, given the extra work he has done on the side with the coaching staff this spring, but he has only been on base that one time.

On Monday, with Morgan getting a day off, Roger Bernadina, younger and more powerful than Morgan, played center field and batted leadoff in the Nationals' 14-9 win over Houston, reaching base on an infield single and a walk, and stealing a base. He's hitting .357 with a homer and four RBI.

The Nationals keep saying Morgan is their center fielder, despite the precipitous plunge his numbers took in 2010, but they have also given themselves plenty of options for Plan B if they decide to change course. There is Bernadina. There is veteran Rick Ankiel, who hit a towering two-run homer Monday and will almost certainly be on the team in one role or another. There is Jerry Hairston, signed as a utility player, but capable of playing center field.

And Morgan is fully aware of their presence, saying, "You gotta try to get better. If you don't try to get better, you're on your way out the door. There's always somebody else trying to slide right in."

One reason the Nationals seem willing to cut Morgan so much slack is because they have undertaken an extensive overhaul of his entire approach to the game - his pregame routine, his pre-at-bat rituals, his mental focus. High-strung by nature, Morgan is trying to rein himself in.

"When you [ask a player to make adjustments], you have to be patient with what the player is going through," Riggleman said.

Hitting coach Rick Eckstein said the Nationals are simply trying to get Morgan to relax.

"We're trying to say, 'When you're a hitter, everything has to be under control,' " Eckstein said. "He has this demeanor where he wants to grind, grind, grind. Mentally he's not in control at all times. So that's a big thing we're trying to change.

"You look at hitters who are the best in the game - like Albert Pujols - there's an intensity there, but it's a controlled intensity. We're trying to get [Morgan] to control his intensity so he controls his bat and ultimately keeps himself in the right position.

It'll take some time, but when that lightbulb clicks you'll look and say, 'Wow, I've never seen him do that.' And then we have to build off of it. It takes some time."

Morgan has been showing up at the Nationals' complex every morning this spring around 6:30 a.m. - taking a full round of indoor batting practice, watching video and performing base running drills before the full team does its pre-workout stretching at 9.

"I try to be one of the first guys in here," he said. "I'm being more of a student of the game. Normally I wouldn't sit down in the computer room and [study video]. I'd just rely on my abilities. But now I'm a little wiser, and I'm understanding my game and learning what it takes to be that student."

Morgan's motto for the season is "even keel," while acknowledging that his 2010 season - plagued with off-the-field issues and on-field incidents - was anything but.

"I've had my ups and downs," he said. Then he raises his hand parallel to the ground. "I need it to stay right here. Even keel."

"Even keel" means not panicking over four full games' worth of at-bats in the first week of March. It means rising confidently from the seat at his locker, and offering a fist-bump as he slings his bat over his shoulder and strolls away.

"I'm good, man," he said. "I know what I have to do."

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