Nyjer Morgan reached base in 25 of 27 starts late in 2008.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Maybe the general manager should call out players every day.
Barely 24 hours after Neal Huntington publicly outlined the spring shortcomings of the Pirates' leadoff candidate whose speed and presence could help to balance out the order, Nyjer Morgan yesterday conjured a 1-for-3 performance with two stolen bases, a run-scoring single, walk and a self-described ruckus. As in ...
"It was pretty nice to get on and cause a ruckus out there," Morgan said after a 4-1 exhibition victory against Tampa Bay at McKechnie Field. "Just showing the organization not to stress out on the leadoff spot. Everything's going all right. It's part of the process. As long as I don't get down on myself: 'Aw, I'm not getting hits ... ' It'll come. I know myself. I know what I can do."
Management knows, too.
After flaming out as a bench and role player early last season, this former Canadian junior-hockey forward turned outfielder reached base safely in 25 of 27 starts and batted a torrid .347 after his August 19 recall -- the 10th-highest average in the National League. With Morgan and his 16-for-24 major league steal ratio atop the order, the Pirates can use Freddy Sanchez's contact ability in the No. 2 spot and Nate McLouth's skills -- speed, power, timely hitting -- before even getting to the Ryan Doumit-Adam LaRoche heart.
With Morgan leading off, the Pirates went 2-0 in April and 9-20 down the stretch, when they were 8-17 without him there after the Jason Bay and Xavier Nady trades.
"Getting on base is a big key," Pirates manager John Russell said yesterday, when Morgan and Andrew McCutchen were 1-2 in the order and got on base five times in eight plate appearances, four of those walks. "However he can do it, with a bunt or a walk ... if he gets on base, then good things can happen for us."
Morgan brings speed, his nine stolen bases last season second only to McLouth's 23. Morgan brings the ability to combine such speed with some batting contact that enables him to reach safely, his .294 average last season ranking behind only .300 hitters Doumit and Nady.
Maybe that helps to explain Huntington's pointed comments Sunday about a leadoff man at the time batting .173 with just two hits and twice as many strikeouts in his previous 17 plate appearances.
"He's expanding the zone too much," Huntington said then. "He hasn't utilized the bunt enough. He does need to take some steps forward. It's awfully hard to lose a job in spring training." But Huntington soon after compared Morgan's situation with that of a bullpen crew he similarly called out: "Because we have options, we need to see some performance."
"Oh, yeah," Morgan responded yesterday morning. He knows whereof Huntington speaks. "They expect me to get on base. Work on my bunting. Work the counts. Draw walks. Learn how to be a consistent leadoff hitter. Do that, and I think everything will take care of itself.
"I'm just working on what I have to do. I'm just not getting hits, but it's spring training, know what I mean? I'm definitely not worried about that. Just trying to work on having good at-bats, trying to be patient. It's time to lock it in a little bit and get it going."
Then, yesterday afternoon, Morgan opened the Pirates' first by drawing a walk and promptly stealing second base, though he was thrown out at third. In the fourth, he beat out a single between first and third, scoring Jack Wilson with two outs. He stole second again and put the Pirates in position to add to their 4-0 lead, though Ramon Vazquez's two-on grounder to third got Morgan eradicated and the inning squelched.
"That's what spring training's for, it's for you to work on stuff," such as working on counts, getting on base, bunting, refining, Morgan said. "So when it comes down to April 6 in St. Louis, we'll be ready to rock and shock."
Interestingly, his Wilson-scoring single followed a sacrifice fly in each of his previous two games, Friday and Saturday, and gave him three RBIs in as many leadoff games.
The 6-foot, 175-pound dynamo fashioned his oft-present grin and offered, "Little guys like steaks, too."