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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."

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

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Whoa. Dusty Baker not returning as Nationals' manager. What comes next?

The Washington Nationals announced Friday Dusty Baker will not return as manager of the club in 2018. 

Baker led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in franchise history, and the Nationals were 192-132 under Baker, but they failed to make it to an NLCS.

Baker is 14th in MLB history with 1,863 career wins.

The next Nationals' manager will be their seventh since they arrived in DC.

Only the Marlins have had as many.

"I'm surprised and disappointed," Baker told USA TODAY Sports. "They told me they would get back to me and I told them I was leaving town yesterday and they waited 10 days to tell me."

"I really thought this was my best year. We won at least 95 games each year and won the division back to back years but they said they wanted to go a different direction. It's hard to understand." 

The team also announced the contracts for the Major League coaching staff have also expired, and the search for a new manager will begin immediately.

RELATED: BRYCE HARPER THANKS NATIONALS' FANS FOR SUPPORT

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy undergoes successful knee surgery

While Nats fans were still digesting the news that Dusty Baker will not return as manager next year, the team released some more surprising news. 

Second baseman Daniel Murphy underwent knee surgery today, per an official team report. 

Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes reported that the surgery is considered significant and the team won't put a timeline on the recovery process:

"The procedure, according to the statement released by the team, repaired articular cartilage in Murphy’s right knee. For those interested in the details, it was a debridement and microfracture surgery, and orthopedic surgeon Timothy Kremchek performed it."

"For those concerned with the implications of the procedure, those are still unclear. The statement clarified that Murphy’s rehab “will progress throughout the offseason,” as one would hope, and did not include a timetable.

RELATED: HARPER THANKS FANS FOR SUPPORT