Michael Morse will be in "total shutdown mode" for six weeks after aggravating the injury to his right lat muscle while playing in a minor-league rehab game earlier this week, leaving the Nationals without their cleanup hitter for quite some time.
General manager Mike Rizzo said Morse re-injured himself while trying to make throws from left field during a game Monday night with low-Class A Hagerstown. His swing is not affected by the injury at all, but doctors have instructed Morse to refrain from all activities for the next six weeks, hoping the rest will allow the lat to completely heal at last.
There is no surgical remedy for the injury, according to Rizzo, only rest and treatment.
"We tried to ramp him up, get him ready as quickly as we could, because he's a big piece of our lineup," Rizzo said. "And he just re-aggravated it. So we're going to have to be ultra-cautious and make sure he's right for the majority of the season."
The Nationals aren't setting a specific timetable for Morse to return to the big-league lineup, but he'll still need time to get back into baseball shape and play in more minor-league games after he endures through the six-week rest period. That would appear to push back his return until at least mid-June, if not later.
This setback comes only a few days after the Nationals were convinced Morse would be ready to come off the disabled list and re-assume his spot in the heart of their lineup for today's home opener against the Reds.
But while attempting to play a full game with Hagerstown on Monday, Morse continued to feel pain in his right shoulder and back and was unable to even throw the ball from his spot in left field to second base. He doesn't feel any pain when he swings, and in four total rehab games with Hagerstown and Class AA Harrisburg went 5-for-12 with two doubles and a home run.
"He swings extremely well," Rizzo said. "He continues feeling pain-free when he swings the bat. But this is the National League, and you have to play both sides of the ball. Until he's ready to do all facets of the game, we can't re-institute him in the lineup."
Though they'll obviously suffer from the lack of last season's club leader in homers (31), RBI (95) and batting average (.303), the Nationals feel comfortable with their in-house replacements for Morse. Manager Davey Johnson has so far used veterans Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady in left field, and Roger Bernadina could also figure into the mix once center fielder Rick Ankiel returns from a quad strain as expected on Saturday.
That said, Rizzo acknowledged he would explore alternatives from outside the organization.
"If there's a viable option to get another guy who fits what we're trying to do this year and for the long-term, we're always open to that," the GM said. "But we like the options we have here. We've got a guy at Syracuse who's an option for us. So we feel good about where we're at."
That "guy at Syracuse" is top prospect Bryce Harper, who is hitting .261 with a double and a triple in his first six games at Class AAA. Rizzo, though, stressed he won't promote the 19-year-old outfielder before he's proven he's ready to make the leap.
"We've got a plan for him, and when he's ready to come up we'll certainly think about that," Rizzo said. "But this injury, we've got in-house candidates we feel comfortable with. It doesn't change where we're at with Bryce's timetable."