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."

Daniel Murphy owns up to costly error after loss to Mets

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Daniel Murphy owns up to costly error after loss to Mets

The margin for error is always going to be slim when you're facing your most closely-matched division rival and when they've got a pitcher as lethal as lefty Steven Matz on the mound, and on Wednesday it was a mistake by Daniel Murphy at second base that loomed large in a 2-0 Nationals loss to the New York Mets.

With the Nats down a run in the seventh inning and Mets infielder Matt Reynolds on first base, first baseman Eric Campbell smacked a hard groundball to Murphy at second. It shot up to the left of his glove and through his legs into center field.

That put runners on the corners with one out and set up an RBI single to left field by Mets catcher Rene Rivera. The score was then 2-0 and that would hold until the final out was made.

After the game Murphy brought up his mistake on his own when asked an unrelated question. 

"I misplayed another groundball, which just needs to stop happening. I just need to work harder on that," Murphy said of his team-high fifth error of the season.

Murphy came to the Nats with a reputation for subpar defensive play and this was the most obvious case so far of it affecting the outcome of a game. Though the Nats didn't score any runs on the day, Murphy explained how he thinks his mistake altered the momentum and scope of the contest.

"I think it was a double play ball and [Tanner Roark] should have gotten out of the inning. Then it was 2-0 and it just changes our approach from an offensive perspective," he said.

Murphy was asked if the ball took a bad bounce and he declined to go there, instead referring to the sequence as a "bad play by me."

His manager, Dusty Baker, didn't fault Murphy for the loss and instead focused on the dominant performance by Mets starter Steven Matz.

"Errors are part of the game," Baker said.

Baker, of course, can live with the occasional error as long as Murphy is atop the majors with a .394 batting average. Murphy's OPS is 1.043 and he's on pace for a career-high in homers. He's been as important to the Nationals' first-place start through 47 games as anybody.

Murphy knows defense is an area of game that needs improvement and Baker is not too concerned about it at this point.

"Murph works hard at it, he works very hard and he takes it hard when he doesn't make the plays," Baker said.

Matz too much as Mets take finale and series against Nationals

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Matz too much as Mets take finale and series against Nationals

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 loss to the New York Mets on Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Facing any pitcher for the first time can be a challenge, especially when that foe is an emerging star lefty with a mid-90s sinker that dives over the plate like a fighter jet.

Mets southpaw Steven Matz has had his way with the Nationals on Wednesday, just as he has with the rest of the league in his brief MLB career. He went eight efficient, shutout innings with just four hits allowed, at times retiring Nationals hitters with leisure. Perhaps they'll have better luck the next time they see him, but this simply wasn't their day.

Matz outdueled Nats starter Tanner Roark, who was pretty good himself. He went seven innings with two runs allowed, only one of them earned. The second came home after a Daniel Murphy error that ultimately proved a costly one.

What it means: The Mets have evened up the season series at 3-3 and cut the Nats' division lead back to a half-game in the NL East. The Nationals fell to 28-19 on the year with the St. Louis Cardinals up next.

Roark strong again: Roark was excellent in his first meeting with the Mets of this season despite giving up an early run on a homer to David Wright in the first inning. The right-hander settled in after that and at one point retired eight in a row from the second through the fourth. Roark did let another run in in the seventh inning before he was removed, but it wasn't earned. That's thanks to Murphy's error on a hard-hit groundball right to him by Eric Campbell. Murphy couldn't corral it and that set up runners on the corners for Rene Rivera, who singled to left field to make it 2-0 Mets. It was Murphy's fifth error this season, most on the Nationals.

Roark finished with seven innings and one earned run on five hits, two walks and five strikeouts. He threw 113 total pitches and made it at least seven innings for the fifth time in 10 starts this season. It was the sixth time he's gone at least six innings with one earned run or less allowed. It's also the fourth time this season he's reached the 110-pitch mark.

Matz tough in first matchup: This was the first time the Nationals had ever faced Matz and the lefty certainly didn't take it easy on them. Matz dazzled with a mid-90s sinker combined with a sharp slider to go eight shutout innings. He was pulled after throwing 104 pitches with seven strikeouts and just four hits and a walk allowed. Michael Taylor, Wilson Ramos, Clint Robinson and Murphy were the only ones to get hits off of him. Matz held Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon to a combined 0-for-9 with three strikeouts. Before giving up the hit to Robinson - who pinch-hit in the eighth - he had retired 16 straight batters. He allowed Robinson's single with two outs and then got Bryce Harper - who also pinch-hit - to ground out and end the frame.

Murphy nears Nats record: Murphy may have committed a costly error, but he also inched closer to setting a Nationals record for most hits in a single month with an infield single in the first inning on Wednesday. That gave him 38 hits in the month, just two away from Denard Span's record of 40 set in August of 2014. The Nats have six more games left in May, plenty of time for Murphy to break it. And if he does, he will have set a Nats hits record in just his second month with the team.

Schu ejected: Nats hitting coach Rick Schu was tossed by home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn in the bottom of the fifth for arguing about the strike zone. It happened after Chris Heisey struck out looking against Matz. Schu was seen on the TV replay in the dugout taunting Reyburn by waving his hand over his head. It was Schu's first ejection as a member of the Nats' coaching staff.

Good attendance: The Nats and Mets drew 38,700 for the series finale on Wednesday. That's a sellout and the second-largest crowd of the season so far at Nationals Park.

Up next: The Nationals turn their attention towards the St. Louis Cardinals, who come to Washington for a four-game series through the weekend. Thursday's series opener will pit Joe Ross (3-4, 2.70) against Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake (3-3, 4.07) with a 7:05 p.m. first pitch.

Dusty Baker on Harvey ducking Mets media: 'New York will eat you up'

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Dusty Baker on Harvey ducking Mets media: 'New York will eat you up'

Mets pitcher Matt Harvey made headlines on Tuesday night as much for avoiding the media after the game as he did for yet another awful outing on the mound. He left the stadium before reporters entered the clubhouse and let his teammates answer all the questions for him.

As expected, Harvey has been villified by New York media members. New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, for one, went after Harvey in a piece entitled 'Silent Matt Harvey confirms he's the phony Mets have enabled.' It's brutal and Harvey shouldn't be surprised.

That's New York and, some would argue, it comes with the territory. Nationals manager Dusty Baker knows how rough New York can be and on Wednesday he talked about the dysfunction that is plaguing the rival Mets at the moment.

"I'm not going to try to straighten their clubhouse out. It's his prerogative to do what he wants to do. If he doesn't want to talk, then he doesn't have to talk. It will just make it harder on himself. New York will eat you up," Baker said. 

"They know their sports heroes in that town better than anybody... these people in New York, they know. They know sports. They know it big-time. I tell my guys. I'm not going to tell you what to do, but you're going to have to own up to it and live with whatever you do. Try not to put pressure on your teammates to answer your questions."

Whether a player talks after a tough loss always brings a mixed reaction. The media tends to harp on it, while some fans do not care. Some do, of course. But many don't.

Ultimately fans care about the performance on the field and right now Harvey isn't holding up that end of the bargain.