Series winner lets Morgan take center stage
MILWAUKEE – Nyjer Morgan(notes) could not stop moving. First he fetched his Army helmet. Next he poured bubbly on a stuffed animal. He talked a little, then left. Wiped some blood from a celebration-madness cut off his face. “Good bleed,” he said. Talked some more, left again. Ran a circle around the clubhouse. Kept talking, left once more. Yelled. Stole a few hugs. Yelled again. And off he went into the night, Milwaukee’s unlikeliest – and baseball’s looniest – hero.
They don’t make ballplayers like Morgan anymore, not even close. To call him eccentric would be an undersell, to call him crazy would minimize the brilliance of his act and to call him Tony Plush, the alter-ego he trots out, would be unfair to Nyjer Morgan, who can be one hell of a little ballplayer, never any better than Friday evening.
The Milwaukee Brewers are headed to the National League Championship Series to face the St. Louis Cardinals for any number of reasons, and yet they couldn’t help but deify Morgan’s game-winning, season-prolonging, clutch-as-all-get-out hit in the 10th inning that propelled them to a 3-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. Morgan’s oxymoron of a swing – the corkscrewing slap – sent a J.J. Putz(notes) fastball into center field to score the blazing Carlos Gomez(notes) and set off a citywide celebration of all things Brewers.
The improbability of Morgan’s love affair with Milwaukee grows by the day and the win. He arrived from an ugly divorce with the Washington Nationals as a fill-in. He drew from the Brewers the sort of personality that lurked within them, like salt extracting the innate flavor of food. And after four years as little more than a decent player, he blossomed into the sort who could get away with a split personality in a city whose idols usually hide behind facemasks.
“He’s meant so much to us,” outfielder Ryan Braun(notes) said. “I think he’s been part of our team’s personality, of the emotion we play with, of the energy we play with. And it was fitting he found the way to get a big hit with us.”
[Related: Carpenter saves Cardinals, Brewers next]
As Morgan swung, Braun stood on deck, swollen with tension like the 44,028 others who stuffed Miller Park. The inning had unfolded such that Braun, the likely NL MVP, could be the hero. Gomez, whose center-field job Morgan took early in the season, singled to left field and stole second base. Even Brewers general manager Doug Melvin expected Braun, who hit .500 in the series, to drive him home. Morgan, who entered the game batting .091 in the series, figured otherwise.
“I knew we were about to win it right there,” he said. “Basically, the kid just had to slow down and tickle it into the outfield.”
He tickled, and everyone laughed the maniacal laughter of a team that won its first playoff series since beating the then-California Angels in the 1982 ALCS. It didn’t matter that closer John Axford(notes) had blown his first save since April 18 in the ninth inning, when a Willie Bloomquist(notes) squeeze bunt with no outs scored Gerardo Parra(notes). Nor did anyone care that in the sixth inning, Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Young made an over-the-shoulder catch on a dead sprint near the outfield fence, one of the best plays in a postseason already replete with them.
All of it was little more than build-up for Morgan’s hit. Four steps into it, he raised his arms to his side and airplaned toward first base. Gomez took a wide turn as third-base coach Ed Sedar jumped, incapable of containing his joy at the inevitable. Gomez slid sideways, swiped home plate with his left arm and the pig pile commenced around him first, then Morgan.
The swarm grew, each teammate evermore appreciative of what he brought to the Brewers as it began to sink in that they’re four wins from the World Series. He wouldn’t have been here had Hart not strained his oblique and landed on the disabled list during spring training, a most fortuitous of injuries. Nor would Milwaukee have been his landing spot had Melvin not prophesied that the Brewers would contend this year with farm-system-depleting trades for pitchers Zack Greinke(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes).
“If you want to go for championships,” Melvin said, “you’ve got to take risks. You’ve got to go for it. And we went for it.”
Melvin’s due diligence included calls around baseball to assess the risk in taking on Morgan, Plush and the duo’s problems from last season. The corporatization of the game made the oddball – a baseball specialty – significantly less common, and Morgan seemed to prove why. He threw a ball at a fan in the stands. He ran over St. Louis catcher Bryan Anderson(notes) and Florida catcher Brett Hayes(notes) in plays deemed dirty. He incited a brawl after Florida pitcher Chris Volstad(notes) hit him, getting comically clotheslined by Gaby Sanchez(notes) and raising his arms in victory nonetheless as he tromped off the field.
The reports to Melvin came back clean. He needs a change of scenery, they said. A better clubhouse. A winner.
When Morgan arrived, he didn’t unleash Plush immediately. He would work out in the weight room like everyone else, take batting practice, try to assimilate. That didn’t last long. Once his personality came out, he dragged his teammates along with him, impervious though they were to the power of Plush. They, too, had an effect on him, helping rewrite Morgan’s place in the game and giving him an opportunity to succeed and, on Friday, let Nyjer take center stage ahead of Plush the showman.
“It’s a lot,” he said. “Just everything that I’ve had to overcome. Just the stuff that people go out there and perceive about me. And just everything that – all my haters, I just wanted to show them that I can play this game. Even though I’ve got a fun, bubbly personality and everything like that, I still come to win and I’m a winner.”
As long as Morgan parades around as Plush – and drops F-bombs of bliss on live TV, as he did when TBS tried to interview him amid the festivities – never will that be the first thing that jumps to people’s minds. And that’s fine. Baseball needs characters like him, guys who can introduce something as juvenile as “Beast Mode” – after practically every hit, the Brewer on base looks toward the dugout and flexes his stretched-out arms back and forth like a monster – and actually get away with it.
“If I say to you he ever relax, I be lying to you,” Gomez said. “This guy – he always, like, high.”
And what a trip Friday was. The city pulsated. The ballpark shook. Tony Plush got to celebrate the biggest game of Nyjer Morgan’s career.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Woods impresses, but still a work in progress
• Edgar, Maynard look for resolution in UFC 136 main event
• Featherweight champ Aldo has much to gain from a win Saturday