MILWAUKEE — All systems seemed to be go for Nyjer Morgan in the 2011 season, arguably his best in the major leagues.
The six-year pro kept his batting average above .300 throughout the entire year and became one of the Brewers’ most important pieces down the stretch, culminating in a ground-ball single up the middle that will forever be a part of Brewers lore.
2011 was that kind of year for Morgan, his on- and off-field antics giving him a special place in Milwaukee fan’s hearts, as his play made him one of the heroes of baseball’s postseason.
And that’s what makes Morgan’s 2012 start so abrupt and unexpected. Tony Plush has been relatively quiet to start the season, and he has struggled mightily at the plate in the team’s first 13 games. He’s hitting just .139 and has struck out almost twice as many times as he’s gotten on base.
It was almost fitting then on Wednesday, as Morgan saw Ryan Braun’s bat connect with a pitch in the 10th inning, that Brewers third base coach Ed Sedar would throw up a stop signal and implore Morgan not to tag and go for the hero play.
Morgan had no doubt been frustrated to start the season and communicated those frustrations to manager Ron Roenicke. He had struggled in April before — last year he spent half of the month on the disabled list. But he wanted to start the season out on the right foot, especially considering how hot he had been to close out 2011.
“My character is getting tested,” Morgan said Thursday. “And I’m still the same person even though things suck that I can’t help out and contribute the way I know I can.”
As he watched Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp catch Braun’s fly ball flat-footed and over his left shoulder, he knew he wanted this one. He needed the green light again.
“The momentum was there,” he said. “I’m gonna go home.”
So he put his head down and took off for home. It had been an awfully shallow fly ball — too shallow for most runners to tag up on. But Morgan had been in rough spells like this before and broken out of them, and he knew it was a play like this that could spark his game.
Back in 2010 with the Washington Nationals, Morgan went through an even worse spell, stumbling through an 0-for-22 skid. He said he didn’t know how to handle the slump at first, battling with his frustrations. But through that experience, he learned not to get too low when you’ve got “the funks,” as he calls it. Now, he says, he understands himself and his game better.
“I got the funks,” Morgan said. “It’s just part of baseball… But it’s going to be a long season. It’s just me hanging in there mentally and battling out of it and not getting out of my game … and eventually they’re going to fall. But right now, they’re not falling.”
With his head odwn, Morgan ran straight through Sedar’s stop sign. It was a decision Roenicke had not expected, but he explained Thursday that he likes his players to have the freedom to act on their instincts. His instincts were what had gotten Morgan there in the first place.
While Morgan’s mad dash for home plate will be what he’s remembered for from the Brewers’ matchup with the Dodgers, Roenicke said it was Morgan’s steal of second base and advance to third on a throwing error that really changed the game.
So he trusted his center fielder’s instincts.
“Nyjer’s got a lot of energy, and he felt it,” Roenicke said after the game on Wednesday. “Sometimes, players see something a little different from the coach. It worked out. … I’ve seen guys score on balls that shallow.”
And score he did. Morgan’s sideways slide — although controversial — counted for the Brewers’ winning run, clinching the series for Milwaukee. It hadn’t been a great throw from Kemp, but it didn’t matter for Morgan. He needed this one.
“I knew I was safe,” he said, smiling.
For a night, the mad dash had made Morgan the hero again in Milwaukee. His frustrations are still there, and it’ll likely take time for him to get back into the form that made him so effective last season. But for one game, a slump didn’t matter. The Brewers just needed their postseason hero of 2011 to run a stop sign.