Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
In his first game in 11 days, Nyjer Morgan looked just like his old self.
"I didn't have it cranked up," he said. "I didn't really want to push it too hard, but I wanted to still push it just to show the boys that even though I was injured, it's good now."
If this is what the Nationals can expect from Morgan at 80 percent -- two hits, one of them a bunt single, and two stolen bases -- just wait til he's back at full-strength.
There's no denying Morgan's importance to the Nats. With all due to respect to Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, who each had outstanding seasons in 2009, there's an argument to be made that Morgan was actually the club's MVP. Look at the difference he made when he was in the lineup in July and August. He got on base at a .396 clip. He stole 24 bases in 49 games. The Nationals scored 5.0 runs per game when Morgan played. When he didn't, they scored only 4.1 runs per game.
And that doesn't even take into account all the ground he covered in center field, making up for Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes' lack of range around him.
"Nyjer's contribution to us is big offensively," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But it's every bit as big defensively. We just want his legs under him real good so he can run some balls down for us in the outfield."
So the sight of Morgan racing around the bases and center field tonight was by far the most encouraging development in the Nats' 8-2 loss to the Tigers. Sidelined since March 14 with a slightly tweaked right hamstring, he came back with a bang.
It began with a line-drive single in the third, the warm-up act for the real fun two innings later. Morgan was a one-man wrecking crew, dropping a bunt down the third-base line and beating the throw for a single. Then he stole second (and yes, he slid feet-first). Then he stole third.
For the first time all spring, Morgan felt like himself.
"Oh, most definitely," he said. "You guys saw it. It felt really good to do that. Now I just want to keep it on a consistent basis."
Consistency could still be an issue for the 29-year-old, who entered tonight's game with only three hits in 21 spring at-bats. But he made up for lost time over the last couple of days, getting 10 at-bats a day in minor-league, intrasquad games before returning to the big-league lineup tonight.
Morgan, who did a similar thing last spring with the Pirates, thinks the extra work makes a significant difference.
"Big-time," he said. "I wouldn't say I got my groove back, but it's starting to come. I went down there, got a bunch of ABs, locked it in. That's one of the things I really like about spring training. I can get over there and get like 10 ABs a day and really work on what I'm trying to do before the big lights come on."
The big lights come on in only 10 days, so it will be a bit of a sprint to the finish line for Morgan. Riggleman isn't worried, saying the extra work the last few days coupled with the kind of shape most ballplayers report to camp in these days makes it easy to get ready in such a short time frame.
The Nationals could certainly use 100 percent of Nyjer Morgan from the moment Roy Halladay throws his first pitch to the dynamic leadoff man on April 5.