They always think they know. Before every game, standing around the batting cage, some player or coach from the other team walks up to Michael Morse and broaches the subject of his on-deck routine. You know the one — Morse lifts his left knee high as he rotates his torso forward, like he is inventing a yoga pose, or learning karate.
“And every time they ask me,” Morse said, “it’s something different.”
Morse has heard so many guesses, he just to nods and agrees.
Oh, man, I know why you do it — it’s because of your hands, right?
“Yeah, that’s it.”
I know why you do it — because you feel it with your front leg, right?
When it comes to explanations, Morse finds it best to simply brush them away. Like, for example, how he’s become one of the best hitters in the National League, a contender for the batting title, a player who could appear on the fringe of a few MVP ballots.
Morse exploded earlier this season after he became the Nationals’ regular first baseman. While everyone looked for the next storyline, Morse never really slowed down. After Tuesday night, when he obliterated another home run farther than 440 feet, Morse has 20 home runs. He is hitting .323/.371/.562, which places him in the top on the NL in batting average and slugging percentage. He had never had 300 plate appearances in a season. Now, at 29, he is possibly one of the best hitters in the league. His impersonation of an elite slugger wasn’t an impersonation at all.
So what’s the explanation? There isn’t one, Morse says. He thinks he’s the same player now he always has been. He’s finally getting the opportunity to prove it.
“People ask me those kind of questions, and it’s hard for me to explain,” Morse said. “All I’m doing is what I think I’m capable of doing. If people ask me why I didn’t do this in the past, well, I hadn’t gotten to play. Whether I was hurt. A lot of times, I had guys playing over me. It comes down to getting an opportunity like I’ve got. It’s great.
“I haven’t changed anything. I haven’t done anything different.”
For years, Morse had been desperate for a chance. In 2008, he had finally earned an opening day platoon role with the Mariners, but he injured his knee diving for a ball and never gained traction again. He saw a new opportunity with the Nationals — he thanked Mike Rizzo after the 2009 season for trading for him. Last year, during spring training, Morse slapped on catcher’s gear and caught a bullpen session for Livan Hernandez — one more position to earn at-bats at, he figured.
“I wanted to do whatever it took,” Morse said. “And I still have the same mentality. Whatever it takes, whatever position, to get me on the field. That’s one thing I’m not going to change. I’m not going to change what got me here. Because what got me here is part of my makeup and why I’m having my success.
“You get to a point in your career when you’ve got to say, you know what? I’m not getting an opportunity to play, and I wish somebody would let me, because as much as they want to know, I want to know. Because I feel like I’m a great hitter, I’m a great player. And it really eats at you after a while when you don’t get a chance, an opportunity. I got an opportunity last year, and I’m getting an opportunity this year, which is all I can ask for.”
With less than two months of season left, Morse has found himself in the thick of the race for the National League batting title. He is 13 points behind Jose Reyes, the leader who’s currently on the disabled list. All season, Morse has politely told interviewers to not mention his statistics. He’s oblivious to his place among the league leaders.
“I can honestly tell you I don’t know anything,” Morse said before Tuesday’s game. “The only thing I know is, I have 18 or 19 homers. That’s all I know. And it’s not that I’m superstitious or nothing. It’s just that, I think that when a person is doing well, and people are telling how good he’s doing and stuff, you start to get content with that. And I don’t want to be content. I want to strive to be the best. If you strive to be the best and fall short, you’re pretty good. I don’t want to be content, especially this part of the season. We have a lot left. We can talk about numbers all you want in October, you know? There’s a lot of games left, and I just want to keep helping the team as much as possible.”
Morse will just keep doing what he has been doing, and that includes his routine before stepping into the batter’s box. Oh, and for that, there really is an explanation.
Early in the year, during a series in Atlanta, Morse’s knee was hurting. He talked to some specialists, and they told him the problem stemmed from tight hips. They gave Morse tips to keep his hips loose, and one was a series of stretches. Morse did the stretches, and he kept thinking “keep your hips loose.”
One day, with that thought in his mind, Morse was talking about his swing with hitting coach Rick Eckstein. He realized one of the stretches was not far off from an extreme version of how he starts his swing.
“When I load, it’s kind of coiling up like a cobra,” Morse said. “Then I just took it to the next level. I go up there and it basically locks me in. It makes me feel like my weight is back, but I’m ready to hit. It’s an over-exaggeration of what I want to feel at the plate.
“When you hit, you want everything to be straight. You don’t want to move anything. So what I want to do is, I over-exaggerate the feeling . . . so that when I get in the game, I’m more relaxed, I guess.”
So that explains that.
FROM THE POST
Chien-Ming Wang ditched his reinvention, returned to his sinker and carried a no-hitter into the sixth in a 3-1 Nationals victory over the Cubs.
Dave Sheinin catches up with Adam Dunn, who can’t hide from his slump.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 3, Buffalo 2 (11 innings): Jhonatan Solano went 1 for 1 with a game-winning single. Yunesky Maya allowed two runs in six innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out eight. Jesus Valdez went 3 for 5 with a walk.
Harrisburg 5, Richmond 4: Bryce Harper went 0 for 3 with a sac fly. Erik Komatsu went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk. Rafael Martin allowed no runs in two relief innings on one hit and no walks, striking out four.
Salem 7, Potomac 4: Destin Hood went 3 for 4 with two homers. Zachary Walters went 2 for 4.
Hagerstown was off.
Auburn was rained out.