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Morse ready at last for his Opening Day


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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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]