Nyjer Morgan, who is appealing his second suspension in two weeks and could have up to 15 games' worth of discipline coming his way, is leading off for the Nationals in Pittsburgh tonight despite the fact that MLB suspended him for eight games on Friday. And both manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo stood up for the embattled center fielder.
While Rizzo allowed that some of Morgan's "mistakes" were "disconcerting," and called him a "young and aggressive player who should have known better," he said he had little to no problem with most of what Morgan did. That list includes running into Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson last Saturday, railroading Marlins catcher Brett Hayes on Tuesday night and then jawing with fans about it, and charging the mound and punching Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad on Wednesday.
Rizzo said Morgan has been frustrated with his slow start to the year, but praised the outfielder's improvement in the second half of the season. That improvement has been modest, statistically - Morgan is hitting .270 after the All-Star break, compared to .252 before it - but Rizzo said it's too early to give up on the 30-year-old, stressing that he's young in his career because of his late start in baseball after his hockey career.
The general manager's first significant trade in Washington brought Morgan to town, and when Morgan hit .351 in 49 games last year for the Nationals, it looked like a steal. Rizzo pushed hard to get Morgan last season, and still believes Morgan can be an fixture for the Nationals.
"He's going to be a guy that we're going to depend on to play stellar center field for us and to hit at the top of the order. When we get good enough to compete for championships, he'll have proven himself in that role or he'll have an opportunity to play himself out of it. I think right now that's how I view him." Rizzo said. "It's really difficult, as you guys know, to go get a premier defensive fielder that has the potential to hit at the top of the order and the potential to steal 60 bases, and we have one. It's certainly too early in his career, being a .285 career hitter, with .350 career on base percentage, to give up on him."
Rizzo added: "Between the white lines, there's been some issues that have been discussed, but he's been a model citizen off the field, in the clubhouse and in the community. Let's not forget that."
And Riggleman said he thought the suspensions levied on Friday - Morgan's eight-game punishment, Doug Slaten's three-game suspension and a pair of games each for third-base coach Pat Listach and himself - were "a little bit heavy.
"The additional time and the additional money on some players is a little bit heavy, I think," Riggleman said. "But yet, I think baseball is saying, 'We're going to not put up with this. We're going to not have bench-clearing brawls in baseball.' And as word goes around how heavy some of the fines were, that will help stop it."
The manager said on Wednesday that the Marlins wouldn't dictate when the Nationals run, indirectly defending Morgan's decision to steal two bases with the Nationals trailing 14-3 after the Marlins drilled him on Wednesday. But he elaborated on that remark on Friday.
"We were down 11 runs. My feeling about it is, when I'm way up or way down in the ballgame, I don't run," Riggleman said. "When my team runs, my team makes that decision. Nobody else tells me when we can run or when we can't run. I just choose not to run in those situations. However, when my player gets hit and he decides, 'OK, you hit me, you're going to pay the price for hitting me. I'm going to run,' the result of that is, they threw at him again.' So if we had it all to do over again, we may not run there. My thinking in the game is, when I'm way up or way down, we're not running, and we never do. I think you can look at any game I've ever managed; when we're way up or way down, we don't run. I didn't put the hold on Nyjer. I didn't know if he was going to run, but I support him if he wants to run there. I let him run, because instead of jawing at the pitcher, or making a scene out there, he just got on the base and said, 'OK, you put me on here. Now you're going to have to stop me from scoring.'"
Morgan declined to talk to reporters in Pittsburgh on Friday.
Riggleman said Morgan's appeals - for this suspension and for his seven-game punishment over throwing a ball into the stands in Philadelphia on Aug. 21 - will be heard next Friday.
Kristen Hudak contributed reporting from Pittsburgh