Nats teammates glad to take in Taiwan
Detwiler, Balester, Morse face Wang in his native country
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Michael Morse arrived as a Major League star in 2011, hitting 31 home runs when his previous career-high total was 15.
So when he and his Washington Nationals teammate, pitcher Ross Detwiler, arrived at the MLB Clubhouse store in Taipei City for an autograph-signing appearance on Wednesday morning, only a few minutes had passed before a fan informed Morse that he had a new total in mind for the slugger in 2012.
"I like the way he's thinking," Morse said. "That's why I like Taiwan."
Detwiler, Nationals pitcher Collin Balester and even the team's mascot, Screech, have been in agreement since arriving Sunday for the five-game, three-city tour of the native country of their teammate, starter Chien-Ming Wang.
The MLB All-Stars won Game 1 of the exhibition series against the Chinese Taipei national team, which includes Wang, in Taipei, and will play their next game in the city of Taichung on Thursday. Games 2 and 3, played at Intercontinental Stadium in Taichung, will air on Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network. Games 4 and 5, played at Chengcing Lake Stadium in Kaohsiung, will air on MLB.TV and MLB Network at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday and at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday.
The line of fans out the door and down the block, the hundreds of autographs signed and the cheerleaders who performed during their introduction showed Morse and Detwiler that baseball players are considered big-time celebrities in Taiwan.
"I feel like Brad Pitt or something," Morse said.
A made-for-Hollywood story could be developing in Washington, with ownership that isn't afraid to spend money to succeed and the highest-profile prospects having already arrived (Stephen Strasburg) and soon to come (Bryce Harper).
The Nationals' large contingent in Taiwan expressed eagerness to get back after it in Spring Training following a strong conclusion to the 2011 campaign under manager Davey Johnson, who has signed on for another year.
Morse was a huge part of the improvement. The 29-year-old, who had been traded by the Chicago White Sox and Seattle Mariners, has matured and prospered with Washington, and there's really no secret as to why.
"I've gotten an opportunity," Morse said. "Earlier in my career, I was always blocked by veteran players. Washington gave me a chance to show what I can do, and it's been great."
Morse had a stunning offensive year, hitting .303 with those 31 homers and 95 RBIs. He had the highest OPS of his career with a .910 clip, slugging .550. And now he's touring with a team of big-league stars, soaking in the culture and seeing what baseball is like on the other side of the world.
Morse said the fact that Wang is a national hero has made it a special visit.
"Collin's here, Ross is here, and I'm thankful for the Nationals to bring all of us here," Morse said. "It's a great thing that we're doing. A lot of guys here, we've played against or we've played with in the Minor Leagues, and there are a lot of guys we haven't seen in a long time. But stuff like this brings bonds back together. It shows you that MLB, we're kind of like a family."
Detwiler, a 25-year-old lefty starter, could be a breakout candidate a la Morse in 2012. He came back from hip surgery in July of last season and put up a 3.00 ERA while making 10 starts.
"Spring Training was good, it went a little slow in Triple-A to begin with, and I really found out some things about myself," Detwiler said. "I learned what I needed to do to succeed and kind of proved some things to myself and other people toward the end of the year. I'll try to just go from there and stay on the same plane as before."
Detwiler was the Nationals' first-round selection (sixth overall) in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, so the team has big plans for the southpaw. As for now, he'll be penciled into MLB All-Stars manager Bruce Bochy's rotation in Taiwan, and he's got buddies from his own clubhouse to share the experience with.
One of those friends is Balester, a starter-turned-reliever who seems to have found a role in the bullpen and could be a major factor for Johnson next season.
"I was in a different role than I'm used to, but I just went out there and gave them all I could every single inning I could, and I feel like I succeeded, so this year I'm going to continue working on the things I was working on," Balester said. "I'm going to use my changeup more and my two-seam, and next year just do whatever is needed."
As Balester spoke those words, he was preparing for a game in a baseball-crazy country he's visiting for the first time. Morse and Detwiler were with him, savoring every moment.
"We're well-represented with three guys," Balester said. "It's great to be here, it was great to be asked, and it's been a fun time."