After he was acquired from the Pirates last summer, center fielder Nyjer Morgan was the person who ignited the Nationals' offense, hitting .351 with 35 runs scored and 24 stolen bases.
Morgan's positive energy lasted for only two months before he broke his left hand sliding headfirst into third base against the Cubs. Now healthy, Morgan is expected to be the leadoff hitter and igniter for Washington during the 2010 season.
MLB.com caught up with Morgan recently to talk about his role on the team and what he expects to see from the Nationals.
MLB.com: A lot of people believe you are the key to the offense. How do you feel when you hear that comment?
Morgan: It's a very gratifying thing, because I've worked hard to be at this position. It's definitely not pressure. I don't feel it, because it's what I've done since T-ball. I've always been at the leadoff position. I've always tried to start the fire. I love being that catalyst. It's more motivation for me to get going. If I can do something to energize the boys and get something going, it's a beautiful thing.
MLB.com: Why don't you feel the pressure?
Morgan: I've always wanted to be in this position ever since I've been in this game. I don't feel any pressure because it's what I do. That's how I play. I always told myself to leave it all on the line.
MLB.com: It's not just your offense people are looking at. Your defense has been spectacular. How key is your defense for the team?
Morgan: When it comes to defense, it saves games, especially in the outfield. We are the last line of defense. If something gets smacked in the gap, you have to be able to run it down. It kills rallies. You can make a nice play in the gap, a diving catch or throwing somebody out. Just being able to do that, it's special.
MLB.com: What are your goals for the season?
Morgan: I want to keep bringing energy, be consistent and keep playing the way I play. When the media gets to me, I just go out there and play -- be mentally ready and play my game.
MLB.com: You never had 200 hits in a season and you never led the league in stolen bases. Would that be something you would like to do?
SHAPING UP THE SCHEDULE
The Nationals want to show improvement from last year the moment the season starts Monday against the Phillies.
However, they have one of the toughest schedules to start the season. Twenty-eight of their first 31 games are against teams that finished last season with a winning percentage over .500.
"It's always important to get off to a good start, but it's not the end of the world if we are not off to a hot start," manager Jim Riggleman said. "If we are 6-0, it's not a great start. If we are 0-6, it's not a bad start. Thirty-five games into it, we'll say, 'You know what, this is the start that we are off to' -- the first 35-40 ballgames."
Interleague Play The Nationals begin Interleague Play against the Orioles starting May 21 at Nationals Park. From June 11-27, Washington plays American League teams, starting with a three-game series against manager Manny Acta and his Indians in Cleveland. The Nationals then travel to Detroit to face the Tigers, while having two home series against the White Sox and Royals. Then it's the Battle of the Beltways as Washington travels to Baltimore to play a weekend series against the Orioles.
Key home dates:
April 5-7: The Nationals were 3-15 against the Phillies last year. Winning the first series of the year would give Washington a confidence boost to start the season.
April 19-22:Washington was 0-6 against the Rockies last year. Colorado has a good offensive team, which finished seventh in the National League last year. We'll see how much Washington's pitching has improved from last year.
May 4-6: Washington plays its first series against Atlanta. Fans will get to see Braves outfielder Jason Heyward for the first time. He is considered by many to be the best rookie in baseball.
Morgan: Most definitely. But my focus is to see the team come together as a whole unit, sneak up on people and [surprise] opponents this year. You can tell -- there is a bunch of pizzazz going on. There is a real vibe going on. I just think a lot of guys came into camp prepared and we are going to win this year.
MLB.com: What's the difference between now and last year, when you joined the Nationals last summer?
Morgan: I believe it would be team camaraderie. You can just see everybody gets along. It's not so many cliques. Last year when I got here, you could kind of see different little cliques -- different guys sectioned off. Now, you could see that everybody gets along. That's what you need to have a winning team. Basically, you could see everybody wants to win. Everybody is sick of losing. You can see guys are hungry, guys are ready to win and show the Nats Nation that baseball is for real in D.C.
MLB.com: What do you want to do differently this year that you didn't do last year?
Morgan: Show more team leadership on the field -- not cheerleading. I want to be like Ryan Zimmerman. Zim is a perfect leader, because he leads by example. He doesn't say a lot. It's by what he does and how carries himself. That's what I want to go out and do. I want to stay healthy, too. That's another one, too.
MLB.com: What do you have to do to stay healthy? Even before you came to the Nationals, you had your share of injuries.
Morgan: Stretching. My past injuries were because I wasn't stretching. Now I know I basically need to stretch. I really can't run out there like I normally do. Once I get to the ballpark, I just kind of forget everything, because I'm having so much fun when I get to the park. But I have to realize I have to stretch before pregame and heat the body up before I get on the field.
MLB.com: Why didn't you stretch before games?
Morgan: I just forget and still think I'm 21. But the body is still working a little bit differently now. Everything is good. I'm not worried about what just happened and how my body feels. I'm still strong and ready to make it happen.
MLB.com: A lot of experts think the Nationals are not going to play well this season. What do you have to say to them?
Morgan: Basically, you have to believe. The cloud stays home for only so long and then it gets sunny. It's not going to stay gloomy forever. [General manager] Mike Rizzo brought in guys who will bring out the sun. The rebuilding days are almost over. I wasn't here in previous years, but [from] when I first came over to now, you could tell the rebuilding is almost over. It's a huge difference.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.