Saturday, May 22, 2010

A ballclub united

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Josh Willingham and others were supportive of Nyjer Morgan despite his mistake.
It could have been a defining moment in the worst possible way, the moment the Nationals' positive season turned south for good. Nyjer Morgan's inexplicable reaction after failing to catch Adam Jones' fourth-inning drive to center -- resulting in an inside-the-park home run for the Orioles -- could have left the manager seething, the clubhouse divided and (most importantly) could have led to the Nats' eighth loss in nine games.

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.


Sec3 said...

Maybe it's not entirely coincidental that a team of really professional, committed ballplayers is winning more than some of the earlier iterations.

Sec3PointTaken said...

oh, and setting a good example for the rest of us.

Mr. Doggett said...


This is the first time I've read one of your posts and thought, "Man, I wonder if any of the Nats players ever read your stuff. They'd probably say it is right on."

Good work.

Anonymous said...

I missed the telecast but the game sounds like it was a real soap opera..must have been a fun day at the will be interesting to see if Nyjer plays tomorrow...tough day for Riggs...seems to have escaped it unscathed..wins will do that...they really need strasburg..if he gets hit he gets hit...but if he pitches really well every pitcher gets better..then Washburn?

Farid Rushdi said...

If Roger Bernadina sticks, perhaps the long-term answer would be to move him to center and have Nyjer take over in right.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work, Mark. I was at the game, and though I wasn't among the boo-birds, I understood the sentiment. I came here to find out what was the "inside" story -- yeah, I went there -- and you delivered.

Nyger and the whole team should read this stuff. His mistake wasn't unforgivable -- no doubt he cares about winning, which makes him easy to like -- but he shouldn't let his emotions get the best of him.

Jenn Jenson said...

Terrific piece, Mark. Nyjer isn't (and hasn't been) the type of player I can relate to. I see him as more sizzle than steak, more style than substance. If Tony Plush were to work in the prominent local industry, he'd be a political hack, and I'm a policy wonk.

Nyjer's very unlikely to ever be a favorite of mine, but this post made me stop and think, both about him and his teammates. Nice job.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. I think even if they lost, they would have stood behind Nyjer. He brought energy to this team. He is in a horrible slump, but this happens. I have full faith he will turn this around.

Anonymous said...

On another note, Bryce Harper just went 6-6 with 4 homers, a triple, a double, and 10 RBI's in one game. Not to mention that one game was the district championship, and the win sends his team to the Juco World Series. That is just unreal. I have never heard of any player doing something like that at a level higher than little league.

Keith said...

I have always liked Morgan, but he's been making more and more mental errors this season. Getting picked off base, that silly attempt at a triple ending an inning just before a run crosses the plate, and now this. My 7-year old wouldn't throw a tantrum like that. There's wanting to win, but Morgan is tilting. Let's hope this is rock bottom and he regains his composure -- no way the team continues to cash his checks if he continues acting like a diva.

Aussie Gus said...

Mark, given Stammen's ability to hit, what are the chances of him moving into the Batista role when SS and the others arrive?

Doc said...

Nice article MarkMeister. It's great that the team sticks together---I guess that's the glue that makes it a team. The problem with Mr. Plush is that he has been replicating these mistakes frequently. He didn't do that last year. I mean this is really weird. No ballplayer his age gets this bad from one season to another.

Find me a seasoned pro who can say otherwise, and I'll accept his judgement. Just because you play aggressive, doesn't entail that you should loose your focus, the way Morgan has been playing.

Anonymous said...

Nyjer Morgan through his helmet after he GIDP. Emotion is fine, hell I loved Paul O'neil, but Morgan is taking it too far. I wonder what Riggleman has to say about that bottom of the 7th temper tantrum. Mark, was he asked about that incident too?

Anonymous said...

I meant to say "threw" not through.

Pseudonym said...

Bryce Harper for the season:

88-205 (.429). 25 HR 77 RBI, .927 slugging in 63 games. Wooden bat league. There's no other pick besides this kid.

sit Nyjer said...

No excuse for Riggleman not pulling him. Utterly ridiculous. You cannot condone that type of immature play that cost your team. He should sit. Period. End of story. I've lost respect for both Nyjer and Riggleman

Bote Man said...

I have 3 letters for Nook Morgan: D.F.A.

(Credit to Past A Diving Vidro.)

Andrew said...

"sit Nyjer said...
No excuse for Riggleman not pulling him. Utterly ridiculous. You cannot condone that type of immature play that cost your team. He should sit. Period. End of story. I've lost respect for both Nyjer and Riggleman "

It was theorized on the in-game post and Riggleman in his post-game said he didn't sit him "then" because he felt pulling him out would have strategically that early in the game left him one position player short.

Riggleman will handle it. One thing about Jim that you don't have to worry about is disciplining players even if it was the face of the franchise. Just ask Sammy Sosa. Mark Grace and Kerry Wood can tell you how Jim runs a clubhouse.

Kudos to Jenn Jenson on summing him up well. I also agree with Farid that Nyjer needs to move to RF and Bernadina to CF.

Sec3 said...

Me, I've gained much respect for this whole team. And he didn't condone it, he just didn't do what you (or I, at the time) would have done. These guys are serious pros, and we can be forgiven, I hope, if we don't recognise that on first sight around here. Call it "Nyjer being Nyjer" if you like, but he manifestly has the confidence of his teammates, at least in public. I've got to believe they know him better than we do.

Sec3 said...

Nyjer doesn't have the arm for right. He's a center fielder. So is Bernardina, actually, but he has a better arm, and a little more power, so in the absence of a classic RF, it's his.

Grandstander said...

The team is supposed to stick together when talking to the media. That shows discipline. I just hope in my heart of hearts that when those door closed he got a strong talking to from some of the the veteran players and coaching staff.

Riggs might say it's forgivable, but to think this goes unpunished is sickening to me.

Andrew said...

"Mark Zuckerman said...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."

Thank you for putting into words how most of us saw it. Nyjer was a Sports Illustrated pick in 2009 for Gold Glove "snub" and last year he makes that catch 99 out of 100 times. That wouldn't even be a Web Gem if he caught it as it wasn't that big of a deal as it was hit high enough for him to get under it.

A DC Wonk said...

Switching subjects (sorry if it was brought up in another thread) -- what's the story behind Livo pinch hitting yesterday? A run's a run, whether it's in the third inning or later -- it's not like they were out of players. Mark? Anyone? (And, also to repeat an earlier question: did anyone ask about the GIDP/helmet throwing ?)

Avar said...

It's been a weird year for Morgan. He isn't the same. Hitting, base running, fielding. Wouldn't be surprised if we later find out he is either hurt or dealing with some personal stuff.

I don't like discipline that hurts the team so fine w/ Riggs leaving him in. Love the team defending him to the media. But, I would bet you anything that Willingham, Dunn, Zimm, Pudge had a few choice words for him in the locker room.

He needs to get his head right. So far this year, this is not a player you want as part of your future. I still like the guy and really hope he turns it around, especially since we have no real options to replace him.

Anonymous said...

Nats definitely have an issue with what to do with Nyjer. It sounds like he is the clubhouse leader, so that makes it difficult to just jettison him to Syracuse (Does the Elvis wig stay in the Bigs?). But, right now he can't field his position. Right field isn't the answer because he has NO arm. We have a left fielder. I say Riggleman keeps him in the lineup on Sunday, in hopes he has bottomed out, and in hopes a good game restores his confidence (like a reliever who's blown a save). One more ITPHR and he's going to the bench, or worse.

SBrent said...

Wow, seems like just yesterday (in fact it was only about a month ago) that Nyjer was the Nats Hero, and now people are talking DFA? Not a lot of patience in this fan base anymore. Did the wise baseball man say that you're never really as good as people think when you're hot, nor as bad as they think when you're playing badly? I think it's too soon to be howling for Nyjer's head, after a disappointing quarter-season. Give the guy a chance to get himself back together. Seems like he's pushing himself like crazy right now, and that's part of the problem. (Good thing this isn't New York!) :)

Anonymous said...

Also switching subjects here: How about this card up on eBay:

A 1/1 Bowman Chrome Superfractor. Up to $9,000 right now. The seller is out of Burke, VA and says he pulled right out of a hobby case. How nice is that?

natsfan1a said...

Thanks for the background, Mark. I was at the game and had been wondering what happened with that particular play. I also came here first for "the inside story" (yeah, I went there, too), and I knew that you'd write it in a way that respected the player's humanity. My initial guess was that Morgan must have thought the ball was no longer in play, so thanks for confirming that.

I wasn't among the boo birds, but I was surprised to see Morgan get at at-bat after the inside-the-parker. There were at least a few people in the crowd who were cheering him on at that point (I was one of them), and I felt bad for him for getting booed again. That said, as soon as he got on, I'm thinking, "do NOT get picked off, because they'll eat you alive." Happily, he was able to get that hit and lay down a sac bunt later for a bit of redemption.

I also wondered whether his teammates had wanted to pick him up and come back to win it, so thanks for confirming that. I've felt a few times that this particular team has come back in several games in which prior teams might have just given up and gone flat.

Last but not least, and as someone else noted, I wonder whether something else may be going that's eating at Morgan. His frustration was clear after the misplay as well as later in the game.

K.D. said...

Natsfan1a; I have been thinking the same thing about Nyjer as far as his frustration stemming from something off the field. Unfortunately, the fans don't usually find out about it later and add to his frustration with their reaction. I've never understood fans booing their own players, even those who make knuckle-headed decisions.

NatsJack in Florida said...

Nyjer Morgans performance for the past month has been atrocious. He displays none of the attributes of an average center fielder or of an average corner outfielder for that matter. His mistakes have been equally split between physical and mental. He takes improper routes to balls hit in the gap, he has to track any ball hit at him for the entire flight of the ball (a good center fielder is able to run to a spot PRIOR to tracking) and he continues to disregard cut off men.

He's run us into outs on the base paths, he has to feign a bunt at every at bat before either popping up a bunt attempt or getting to two strikes so he can ground out or pop up.

Everyone, these are all things known to scouts through out the league and a primary reason the Pirates were more than happy to trade problems with the Nats.

On the plus side, he is a terrific club house presence and can occaisionally provide a few meaningful at bats and stolen bases.

He will never be a center fielder.

yankish2 said...

I wonder why Ryan Zimmerman did not give his support of Nyjer to the press? He is the face of the

Anonymous said...

I like Nyjer Morgans emotional play. Does it sometimes lead to an unfortunate play, yep. But I'll take that over some of the lackadaisical play some former players have exhibited in the past. At least he cares. I would never have considered pulling him out of the game. I knew the instant it happened what was going through his mind, that the ball was over the fence. Totally forgiveable and I'm sure he will learn from his mistake. If it were a play where he didn't hustle, I'd be the first to yank him. This wasn't that. JTinSC

Tony Flush Fan said...

SBrent - The Nats are NOT going to DFA the TFlush. The real fans are frustrated. This guy was supposed to be a lock in CF and now daily this week is doing something "Little League" whether with the bat, glove, arm, and attitude with the 5 year old temper tantrums.

The good news for TFlush is that he has the full support of his teammates "for now".

Also, he knows how to play CF. He has just lost his way and lost his brain somewhere also.

Management has to help him find his way, and quickly.

I also hope Nyjer is reading this because your attitude to the fans that traveled to Spring Training (when the TV cameras were not around) as you walked from field to field you showed that you are truly a rude D-Bag. What does that say about you as a person when you blow kids off and are rude to their parents?

Anonymous said...

Last night I was for giving NM a bus ticket and the club's best wishes. But today I listened to the audio from MZ and read this fine piece above, and I'm of a different mind. Let's get back to talking about the slump. I still think a few consecutive days on the pine would help things.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the game when all the players line up and shake hands or high five Capps pointed at Morgan and said something and smiled. I was wondering what Capps said to him?

Bote Man said...

If you're interested in Nook Morgan's ability to emote, then you should be watching him in a stage play not the theater of Major League Baseball.

All the emotion in the world does not give you ability. I could play CF and give it my all, but I would probably make fewer than 10% of the plays that even he could. Ultimately, ability is what gets the job done, not emotion.

I can forgive him for an isolated fielding error, even if he had knocked the ball over the fence to give Adam Jones a HR. He could make that up by being responsible for the Nats scoring 2 runs.

But watching the ball bounce off the fence and then bounce OFF HIS HEAD and THEN watch him give up on the play in order to focus on displaying his "emotion", all while Willingham was running, pointing, and screaming to get the ball--that is unforgivable. It is unprofessional. It demonstrates that he is more interested in something other than fielding his position.

But don't take my word for it, see what FACTS Kevin Reiss unearthed about your favorite center fielder at Past A Diving Vidro right here on blogger.

If you still think Nook Morgan is the answer, then you might be happy if the Nats were to field a Little League team.

natsfan1a said...

Who is Kevin Reiss, anyway? Seriously, I don't know who that is (not that I'm not inclined to go there, anyway).

Anonymous said...

Kevin Reiss is otherwise known as CoverageisLacking.

N. Cognito said...

Morgan is not as bad as he's been playing lately, nor as good as he was after he got traded to the Nats.
Players have slumps and he's in one. It can affect them emotionally. I'm sure he'll recover and be an adequate centerfielder. Thoughts of moving him and his no arm to RF are nutty.

Andrew said...

In case you were wondering, Nyjer is starting today!

Richard said...

On another subject, Mark, did you see Sheinin's article in the Post this morning ("A Star Is Born -- Stephen Strasburg's Journey")? Sheinin says, toward the end of the article, that Strasburg "will pretend, like the rest of us, that he belongs [in the minors], when everyone knows that, except for a rules quirk that rewards a team for keeping a prospect in the minors for a certain amount of time, he'd have been in the majors by now". I think this is typical arrogant Sheinin swill. Okay, maybe argue that a primary reason or a good reason to keep a prospect in the minors is the contract issue; but a "journalist" should at least mention some of the other considerations, e.g., the prospect can work on a few areas of technique, acclimate oneself to pro ball and the 5-day rotation, and see and appreciate the toil, at least for a few months, of his fellow teammates and the organization itself. Any thoughs?

natsfan1a said...

Thanks, Anon. I've followed the team since the start, but have primarily read the team- or newspaper-associated sites, so I'm not that familiar with many of the other blogs.

SonnyG10 said...

Those of you that think Nyjer was not punished are mistaken. He was totally embarassed by his mistake and having to come up to bat with the home crowd booing was punishment. Nyjer is in a bad slump and it is wearing on him. I believe he will come out of it and play better, but he may always be less than what we want out of him. Time will tell. I do believe that Mike Rizzo will get the best players reasonably available to him consistent with building the Nats the correct way. Nyjer will be there unless and until something better comes along.

yankish2 said...

I would think Justin Maxwell would open his eyes and see a major league outfield job available right in front of him either in center or right. But then is Justin anything more than AAA+?

Anonymous said...

I have one the wondrously stupid Bote Man (D.F.A):

Willie Harris leading off playing center field. It happened a lot last year buy
guys like you have short memories? Wait Riggs tries to do that this year and with his well below Mendoza leading off?


Its one thing to complain about someone who truly does not belong and took the spot of someone who probably does. That is not the case with Nyjer Morgan.

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