Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Josh Willingham and others were supportive of Nyjer Morgan despite his mistake.
But it didn't. The manager, while initially upset, elected not to make a rash decision and bench Morgan. The clubhouse universally stood by him and offered up words of encouragement and support. And instead of letting this game get away from them, the Nationals strung together a late rally and pulled off a 7-6 victory that was sorely needed by everyone in uniform.
"Today was probably the biggest win of the season so far, as far as a little bit of a morale boost," said Adam Dunn, whose two-run single in the sixth proved to be the game-winner.
There were plenty of things to like about this game. Dunn's clutch hit, resulting in only his sixth and seventh RBI of the season off a left-hander, was tops on the list. Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse each had big hits earlier in the sixth to ignite the rally. Tyler Walker, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps combined to allow one Baltimore player to reach base in 3 2/3 innings of sparkling relief.
But this one will forever be remembered for the bizarre play by Morgan in the top of the fourth, one that left the crowd of 30,290 booing the energetic center fielder and left Jim Riggleman contemplating a mid-game benching that would only have riled up the crowd more.
With one on and two out, Jones crushed a pitch from Craig Stammen to the wall in center field. Morgan backtracked and jumped the six inches or so he needed to reach the ball. It was not a routine play, but it certainly wasn't the most difficult play he's ever made.
The ball, of course, hit his glove but did not stick. That's a mistake on Morgan's part, but a forgivable one. His unforgivable mistake came a nanosecond later, when he pulled his glove off his right hand and with his his left hand slammed it to the ground out of frustration.
All the while, the ball sat 10 feet to his side, as two Orioles circled the bases.
"I went back for the ball, leaped up, and I thought the ball went over the fence," Morgan explained. "I guess it didn't and it was standing right there."
Morgan, though, didn't realize all this until Josh Willingham had sprinted all the way over from left field to pick up the ball himself since his teammate was too busy putting on a show. By the time Willingham got the ball back to the infield, both runs had scored and the Nats had surrendered their second inside-the-park home run in four days.
"It was pretty helpless from my situation," Willingham said. "I saw the ball land on the ground and I was pointing and yelling. But he just didn't see me or couldn't hear me."
The overwhelming reaction -- from the stands, from the press box, from the dugout -- was universal. Pull him from the game. On the spot. And Jim Riggleman thought about doing just that.
"My first instinct was: Take him out of the ballgame," the manager revealed later. "And then I realized, you know what, he thinks the ball went over the fence. He thought that he knocked it over the fence and it's a home run, so he's showing frustration. That doesn't excuse it, and I don't want it to be perceived as an excuse. But it explains it."
Riggleman also admitted he was reluctant to pull Morgan at that point because he had already lost catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a lower back strain and would have to play five more innings with a thin bench.
So Morgan stayed in the game, much to everyone's surprise. He finished out the top of the fourth, then came up to bat in the bottom of the fourth and was greeted by a chorus of boos.
"The boo-birds were out there, definitely," he said. "It was a thing where they had every [right] to boo me. It was just one of those things where they know I'm going to come back, and Nats Nation definitely knows I'm a hard-working player, and I'm going to go out there and leave it all out on the line."
Morgan did somewhat redeem himself by lining a single to right, then getting a great jump on Orioles starter Brad Bergesen and advancing to third on Cristian Guzman's subsequent single. But that didn't erase his atrocious gaffe in the field. Even if he had tipped the ball over the fence as he believed, his reaction was totally uncalled for. It's OK to show emotion. It's not OK to make a spectacle of yourself.
Morgan would say later he "let my emotions get to me," which was sort of an apology but probably not to the extent the situation called for. Perhaps he didn't think it necessary, though, because of the overwhelming support he got from his teammates.
Not one person inside the clubhouse had a bad thing to say about Morgan after this game. Not one.
"He made a human error," Riggleman said. "He didn't not hustle. He didn't do something that was a horrible thing. He made a terrible mistake, but it wasn't malicious."
"I think his emotions took over," Dunn said. "He doesn't make very many mental mistakes. And I wouldn't call it a mistake. He's just an emotional guy, and you take the good with the bad."
"There's nobody that plays harder than Nyjer Morgan in the big leagues," Willingham said.
Whether you agree with the Nationals or not, whether you sympathize with Morgan or believe he should have been humiliated by his manager and teammates for his actions, you have to agree that this team sticks together like none that came before it.
Players on previous Nationals teams made stupid plays, didn't hustle, didn't show good baseball instincts, cost their team. And teammates lost respect for them because of it.
Not on this team. This has been a close-knit group from the first day of spring training, and that characteristic absolutely has helped make this season a success so far.
Of course, it helped that the Nats rallied to win this game. The clubhouse atmosphere might have been different had they lost, with Morgan truly serving as goat.
But the Nationals displayed some unity today, taking what could have been a crushing moment and instead emerging a stronger team by day's end. That has to count for something.