Nyjer Morgan finds a home, heads to the playoffs

When the Nationals traded Nyjer Morgan to the Brewers on March 27, parting ways with a player they thought would be their center fielder and leadoff hitter for the next few years, they did so not knowing exactly what they would do to replace him.

General manager Mike Rizzo had planned to send Morgan to Triple-A Syracuse if he hadn’t found a trade partner, wanting the 31-year-old to polish his defense in center field and improve at finding ways to get on base. Optioning Morgan to Syracuse might have also allowed cooler heads to prevail; Morgan had said earlier in the week “this place just isn’t for me,” and had reportedly clashed with outfielder Jayson Werth after bailing early on a series of pregame sprints.

Even this week, six months after Morgan’s departure from the Nationals, there were still signs his bravado didn’t play well in the Nationals’ clubhouse; one player said he wanted to see Arizona win its National League Division Series with the Brewers simply because Morgan was with Milwaukee.

But in a town where the Brewers hadn’t won their division since 1982 - and had been to the playoffs once since then - Morgan has become a sensation, cutting up in interviews and cutting them short by running off with his now-familiar “Gotta go!” His jersey, and a “Tony Plush” T-shirt, have become top-selling items in the Brewers’ retail stores at Miller Park. And on the field, Morgan has energized the Brewers’ lineup much in the same way he did for the Nationals in 2009 after being traded from the Pirates; he hit .304/.351/.421 in 378 at-bats, homering four times and stealing 13 bases in 17 attempts.

He’s also returned to playing the athletic defense that anchored the Nationals’ defense in 2009; he had a 15.0 UZR in 119 games. The Nationals, meanwhile, tried to plug holes in center field all year, playing Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Jayson Werth there at different times. And their leadoff hitters struggled even more this year than Morgan did last year; they had an anemic .285 on-base percentage. General manager Mike Rizzo scoured the trade market for a center fielder who could also lead off this July, and he’ll likely be in pursuit of one again this winter. At this point, it looks like Morgan got the last laugh.

The Nationals have seen this part of Morgan’s game before, though. Teammates and fans soaked up his spirited ways in 2009, when he hit .351 in 49 games for the team and lit up their lineup. But Morgan came to spring training in 2010 upset about his contract, and never got going after a rough spring. When that happened, Morgan attracted more negative attention than positive attention, culminating with his brawl in Florida last September, and things seemed to go south for good for him in Washington.

Maybe his routine will sour in Milwaukee after this season, too, but this is a Brewers team that was built for 2011 at all costs. Prince Fielder is a free agent after this season, and Zack Greinke is entering a walk year. The Brewers made their moves to win this year; if they don’t, they’ll have lots of things to figure out.

So they’ll enjoy Morgan’s energy for now, and by all accounts, the Brewers and their fans have had no trouble doing that. Tony Plush is in the playoffs, and for now, at least, he’s once again the man of the hour. Whatever happens after that is for another day.