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Morse ready at last for his Opening Day

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Morse ready at last for his Opening Day

Michael Morse reached into his locker and pulled out a custom set of spikes, with words stitched into each heel. On the left, it read "Opening." On the right, it read "Day."

He planned to wear them Friday night (before the game was rained out) when he finally took the field at Nationals Park for the first time this season.

"June 1," he said. "Who would've thunk it?"

Certainly not Morse, and certainly not the Nationals, back on March 6 when some minor discomfort in his upper right back forced him to be scratched from a spring training game at Walt Disney World.

Upon feeling that discomfort while playing catch in the outfield that afternoon, Morse wasn't even sure he should bother mentioning it to anyone.

"I was just like, my arm hurts a little bit," he said.

Morse did finally decide to tell manager Davey Johnson, who wasn't overly concerned but didn't want to take any chances that early in the spring. Little did anyone realize at the time the severity of the injury: a torn lat muscle.

What would Morse have said if someone told him that day he'd miss three months?

"I would've laughed in their face," he said.

In fact, Morse claims he never would have said a word to anyone at the time had he been fighting for a roster spot and not been assured of starting on Opening Day.

"Oh, definitely not," he said. "But imagine where that would've got me."

Morse can laugh about it all now, because he's at long last, he's healthy and able to play. The road back, though, featured plenty of bumps.

First came an attempt to bat in spring training games, two of them in mid-March. Then he was shut down again and told to rest for at least two weeks, during which time he received a platelet-rich plasma injection to try to speed up the healing process.

Though he wasn't ready to return for Opening Day in Chicago, Morse still was on track to come off the disabled list in time for the Nationals' April 12 home opener. He played in three rehab games for Class AA Harrisburg, then was set to play one more for low-Class A Hagerstown, needing only to make it through nine innings in the field to be cleared for action.

During that final game, though, Morse felt a recurrence of pain in the affected area when he tried to make throws from the outfield. So he was shut down again, this time for six weeks.

Only this week -- after completing a rehab program at extended spring training in Viera, Fla., and then playing in three games at high-Class A Potomac -- was Morse truly able to return to full health.

There was some thought to restricting him to pinch-hitting duties, or preventing him from making significant throws from the outfield, but both Morse and Johnson insisted he's cleared for full particpation.

"I'm 100 percent," Morse said. "If I wasn't 100 percent, I wouldn't be here."

And will he cut loose from right field to make a throw?

"If I have to, I have to," he said. "I mean, not like Rick Ankiel, but ..."

Whether Morse is able to pick right up where he left off at the end of last season -- he led the Nationals with a .303 average, 31 homers and 95 RBI -- remains to be seen. But his return to the lineup remains a welcome treat for his manager, who figures opposing teams won't enjoy having to face the massive right-handed hitter.

"It's real nice," Johnson said. "I've been waiting on it for some time. ... He was our best hitter last year. You've got to give him some respect."

Morse was scheduled to hit cleanup and start in right field Friday night against Braves left-hander Mike Minor. He'll remain in right field for the foreseeable future, at least until Jayson Werth returns from a broken wrist. His spot in the lineup, though, might change, with Johnson likely to hit Morse fifth (behind Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche) against right-handed starters.

Despite the absence of their potent, middle-of-the-order slugger -- not to mention the absence of countless other key players currently on the DL -- the Nationals entered Friday in first place in the NL East, holding a slim, 12-game lead over the Mets and Marlins.

Morse expected nothing less from his teammates.

"I wasn't surprised, especially with the team that we have," he said. "I definitely wasn't surprised. I still think there's so much more potential than we've got. I don't think we've hit our stride yet. And when we do, it's going to be a lot of fun."

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Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

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Nationals tap Lucas Giolito to start Sunday against Colorado Rockies

Nationals tap Lucas Giolito to start Sunday against Colorado Rockies

The Nationals have chosen right-hander Lucas Giolito to start on Sunday against the Colorado Rockies, as their revolving door of rookies making spot starts continues.

Giolito, 22, last pitched for the Nationals on July 24 against the San Diego Padres. He has made three big league starts this season with six earned runs allowed on 12 hits and nine walks in 11 total innings. 

Giolito has faced the Padres once and the Mets twice. On Sunday, he will see a lineup that is much more formidable in the Rockies.

"I’m hoping he throws up a gem against a very tough lineup," manager Dusty Baker said.

Since his last MLB start, Giolito has pitched five times for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. He gave up nine earned runs in 22 2/3 innings during that stretch.

A former 16th overall pick, Giolito is ranked by many outlets as the top pitching prospect in baseball. He is the top prospect overall in the Nationals minor league system.

Giolito made his MLB debut against the New York Mets on June 28.

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Yusmeiro Petit allows 5 runs in 11th, as Nats fall to Rockies

Yusmeiro Petit allows 5 runs in 11th, as Nats fall to Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 9-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in extra innings on Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Colorado Rockies' lineup is relentless and powerful, and they have a unique ability to pressure opposing teams into making uncharacteristic mistakes. The Nationals fell 9-4 in 11 innings to Colorado on Saturday and made numerous unforced errors along the way.

One Rockies run came in on a wild pitch during an intentional walk thrown by starter A.J. Cole. Newly-acquired lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski made a throwing error in the seventh inning that helped lead to a run. And reliever Yusmeiro Petit allowed a pair of two-run homers in the 11th to seal the Nationals' fate.

It was another poor defensive performance for the Nats in a long string of them. They committed two errors and that count didn't include another mistake by Rzepczynski, who dropped a ball in the ninth when fielding a bunt. The error he was charged with was on a groundball by D.J. LeMahieu in the seventh. Rzepczynski made an underhand throw to first base that sailed over Ryan Zimmerman's head. That allowed Charlie Blackmon to reach third and eventually score.

It was Blackmon who hit the first homer off Petit in the 11th. The next was by Carlos Gonzalez, his 200th career bomb. Petit also gave up another run on a single by Nick Hundley in an overall disaster of an outing.

The Nats scored their first three runs in the fourth inning. Bryce Harper landed an RBI double to left field. Wilson Ramos smacked an RBI single and Danny Espinosa brought in another run on a groundout to second base. 

They pushed the game to extra innings on a Jayson Werth RBI single with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. He singled to left field to score Ben Revere, who walked and stole second base to set it all up. Werth's RBI was off Adam Ottavino, who saw his 37-game scoreless streak snapped. This came just one series after the Nats broke Orioles closer Zach Britton's then MLB-best 43 consecutive scoreless appearance streak.

Harper was later ejected for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Mark Winters in the bottom of the 10th. He went off over a called strike three and threw his helmet at the ground. Winters immediately tossed him. It was Harper's eighth career ejection and his second of this season.

Rookie A.J. Cole took a no-decision in his first home start as a National. He went 5 2/3 innings with three runs allowed on four hits and three walks. He served up a homer to Blackmon - the first of two for the Rockies All-Star - allowed an RBI single to pitcher Jorge De La Rosa and brought another run home on the wild pitch.

The Nats have lost five of their last seven games.

What it means: The Nationals dropped to 75-54 overall on the season. They are 2-3 against the Rockies in 2016.

Harper keeps rolling: Harper's double was his fourth extra-base hit in his last four games and his third to opposite field. That is a very good sign for the reigning MVP, who when at his best can spread hits around the field as good as anyone in baseball. With that double, Harper has reached base in all 14 games since he returned from his neck injury. He also walked and has reached base twice in five straight games and in seven of his last eight outings. Harper is now batting 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs since coming back.

Harper has shown promise for brief stretches since April, but he hasn't produced this consistently in months. Now he's hitting doubles and triples to left field. It appears he may be finally rounding into form, just in time for the home stretch of the regular season. He just needs to do better at keep his cool with the umpires.

No slowing Turner: Trea Turner had another strong game with two hits and a steal. It was his 19th multi-hit game of the year in his 40th total outing and his batting average now sits at .341. Turner's steal was his 17th of the season, which puts him in second on the Nats, only behind Harper who has 18. 

Ramos ties a career-best: Ramos single gave him 68 RBI on the year, which ties the career-high he set last season. It was Ramos' first game back after sitting out two with Jose Lobaton behind the dish in his place. Ramos' RBI was his first in a span of eight games and an encouraging sign for The Buffalo, who has struggled of late. Before the single, he was 0-for his last 13 going back to Aug. 20, with just one walk during that span. Since Aug. 9, Ramos' batting average has dropped double digits from .337 all the way to .312. Perhaps the two days off and Saturday's RBI can help get him going.

Up next: The Nats and Rockies play the finale of this series and their head-to-head matchups this season. First pitch is at 1:35 p.m. with right-hander Chad Bettis (10-7, 5.29) going for Colorado. The Nationals have yet to name their starter.

[RELATED: Dusty talks about slapping Turner's butt, things get weird]

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