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Heads-up! Nats' Morgan going feet-first on slides

VIERA, Fla. (AP) — Nyjer Morgan is going feet-first in trying to avoid headfirst slides.

It's part of the Washington Nationals' new strategy for keeping their speedy center fielder in the lineup and off the disabled list.

Morgan fractured his left hand sliding into third base in Chicago in August, short-circuiting a promising start with a new team. After being traded from Pittsburgh to Washington on June 30, Morgan hit .351, stole 24 bases in 31 tries and played sparkling defense before missing the final five weeks of the season while on the DL.

The 29-year-old Morgan said he's always known how to slide feet-first "but I guess I'm getting a little older and I'm getting a little wiser."

So he arrived at Space Coast Stadium in January trying to learn again how to lead with his feet.

Part of Morgan's penchant for the headfirst approach has been vanity.

"I just like to get dirty," he laughed. "When you're all dirty, you look like you've been playing hard, and I play hard."

Morgan isn't the only Nationals player perfecting the new move. Manager Jim Riggleman wants players throughout the organization to employ the feet-first approach because it cuts down on hand, finger and wrist injuries.

"There's a transition there. It takes a little time, but that's why we got to keep practicing it," Riggleman said. "Our message to the guys — not just Nyjer, but all of them — is any of them who have always slid headfirst, we would like to get you going feet-first."

It's not an edict set in stone, however.

"If it's causing more problems than it's solving, then you can't do it," Riggleman said. "But we got to give it an effort."

And what about those critics who said headfirst slides provide a quicker path between bases?

"I would say if it is faster, it's got to be really close," Riggleman said. "And the value of hoping we keep the player on the field longer by going feet-first outweighs that minute difference."

When Morgan got hurt last season, the Nats lost their spark from the leadoff spot and struggled to replace his defense in center field.

Morgan was given a clean bill of health from his hand specialist last month, but will still wear a brace on his left hand to protect it when he dives back to bases on pickoffs.

"I think we saw the difference from when (Morgan) was with us and when he wasn't, so he's obviously very important," Riggleman said. "Classic leadoff hitters, they're really tough to replace, so we certainly want him to be out there, be healthy and do what he does."

Morgan is sure there will be a point during Grapefruit League games this spring when he'll be caught in between. He'll briefly forget about the new feet-first focus and started to dive and reach toward a bag. Maybe he'll get thrown out more often than he usually does.

But when you're trying to change the way you've always done something, those bumps in the road are to be expected, he said.

"I've got this whole month to get all the bugs out. That's basically what I'm working on for the whole spring training," Morgan said. "I don't care if I get caught (stealing) 10, 15 times, I've got to get it down to where it feels natural."

NOTES: RHP Stephen Strasburg threw his longest bullpen session of spring training, a 12-minute effort in 47-degree temperatures with winds in excess of 20 mph. Pitching coach Steve McCatty was impressed with how the rookie fared in challenging conditions, noting that the winds made it difficult for Strasburg to throw his breaking ball. ... Riggleman said he's toying with the idea of using RHP Craig Stammen, one of the pitchers competing for the final three spots in the rotation, out of the bullpen in long relief. ... OF Josh Willingham, whose wife gave birth to Ryder Jon Willingham on Wednesday, was excused from reporting to camp on time. OF Elijah Dukes showed up to take his physical Thursday, meaning all players were accounted for except newly reacquired RHP Livan Hernandez, who is scheduled to report Friday.