Michael Morse this year is going to be an everyday starter, which is something he has never been before. Already, during spring training, he is finding there are differences between his old, minimal role and new, primary one. Constant playing time means more opportunties for imperfections to creep into his swing, the kind of minor flaws that, before you realize it, can turn a hot streak into a slump.
Morse began this spring 15 for 29, which forced the Nationals to make him their starting left fielder. And then he did not record a hit in his next 16 at-bats, a streak he snapped today with a ground-rule double he scalded over the right fielder’s head.
After yesterday’s game, Morse grabbed a bat out of his locker and went to the batting cage to work on an adjustment. He needed to let the ball travel longer, to see pitches better. Morse had made a few unlucky, hard outs, but many of them were groundballs to the left side, pitches he got out in front of. That made the opposite-field double particularly satisfying – he had made the precise change he wanted to.
During batting practice each day, Morse has been chatting with hitting coach Rick Eckstein around the batting cage. Morse feels that’s an important rhythm to establish as he begins his first season an everyday player.
“I’m working with Eck on a routine before the games to lock me in,” Morse said. “Pretty much all the best hitters and good hitters in baseball have one, so I’m going to try to do that, especially if I’m playing every day to get in a good routine, to get me going, to get me ready for my first at-bat.”
>>> Tyler Clippard had a short, not especially promising outing today, not the follow-up he wanted after an abysmal performance in last appearance, when he allowed six earned runs in 2/3 of an inning. Clippard entered today with two runners on base and two outs in fourth. He walked Jason Bay on a 3-2 pitch, then surrendered a bases-clearing triple to the left-center gap to Scott Hairston. Clippard’s spring ERA is now 15.19.
This morning, before the game, Manager Jim Riggleman met with Clippard and assured him he has confidence in him. Riggleman believes that the more Clippard throws, the better he pitches. In spring training, when so many pitchers need work, Riggleman can’t pitch Clippard as often as he would like.
“I’m thankful is a manager that will go out of his way to do that,” Clippard said. “It says a lot of about the kind of manager that he is. I appreciate that. It’s huge. It’s a confidence builder for me. I’ve just got to hold up my end of the bargain. He has confidence in me. At the end of the day, I’ve just got to get my job done. And I’m gonna. When the season rolls around, I’ll be ready to go.”
Clippard compared his spring struggles to the funks he would fall into last year. “Streaky” is an adjective typically reserved for hitters, but it suits Clippard, too. He’s frustrated about not executing pitches in crucial spots, but he feels he’s close to where he wants to be with his mechanics.
“There’s certain checkpoints that I like to get in my delivery that I’m feeling for right now,” Clippard said. “I’m getting there most of the time. But there’s times that I’m not. That’s where the lack of consistency is coming from right now. Once I can kind of get comfortable with where I need to as far as those checkpoints I’m talking about, that’ll be the final piece.
“It’s a comfortability that I have to feel. I feel comfortable for the most part with everything. Certain times, I don’t. It’s just a work-in-progress kind of thing. I’ve had troubles like this – you saw it last year – and we’re trying to kind of narrow that gap between those periods. If I can come into spring training and figure it out now, figure out the fix, that’s what spring training is for. And that’s what I’m using it for.”
Today, though, was a completely different story. In just 3 2/3 innings, Marquis allowed six earned runs on nine hits and three walks. He needed 79 pitches, and he blamed most of his problems on falling behind in the count too often.
“For the most part, I felt good physically,” Marquis said. “It’s spring training. I’m still figuring things out. You want to have success more for the mental part more than anything. I think throwing up some good games early on definitely helped with that. I threw a bad one in there. I’ll sit back, watch the film, see what could have been better and just work to improve it.”
Marquis’s outing certainly was not good, but it was not as bleak as the black-and-white box score. Six of the nine hits he allowed were groundball singles, three of them staying in the infield. A throwing error by Ian Desmond and a double clutch by Danny Espinosa on a potential double play also cost him in a four-run first inning. “I was keeping the ball down,” Marquis said. “I was just falling behind.”
>>> Danny Espinosa and Ivan Rodriguez both got through their first game in several days without any issue. Espinosa could still feel some soreness in his bruised (contused?) right foot while he ran, but it does not affect him at the plate, he said. Rodriguez left the game after four innings following a single. His left calf strain did not start acting up; it was just the plan. He said he calf “was perfect. I’m going to be ready for the season.”
>>> The Nationals have lost six games in a row, dropping their Grapefruit League record to 10-11. Riggleman is not worried about the losing streak. “I like the way we played today,” he said. “I’m not one to make excuses. I’m more concerned with how we play and the energy we play with. And we’re doing that. I don’t like to lose. I don’t like the losing streak stuff we’re going through right now. A lot of good things happened even in the loss.”