For Nationals’ Michael Morse, expectations feel like relief

VIERA, Fla. — At this Washington Nationals spring training, Michael Morse found the trappings of a burgeoning superstar. Teammates wear the T-shirts a clothing company designed specifically for him. The Nationals feature him in promotional videos. He has lined up at the bottom of his locker several sets of Nike spikes with custom stitching in the heel, including one pair with “IMA” on the left and “BEAST” on the right.

Morse also found the expectations that come with all of that, the onus that comes with hitting .303 and blasting 31 homers in your first full major league season at age 29. The Nationals installed him, from Day 1, as their cleanup hitter and starting left fielder.

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The expectations are more blessing than burden. After a career spent fighting for a place on a major league roster, Morse brushes aside the notion that it will be difficult to fulfill a lofty standard. In January, Morse signed a two-year, $10 million contract that he suggested will not make him complacent, but rather allow him to surpass his breakout 2011 season.

Morse arrived at this spring training with an unfamiliar comfort, “feeling like he’s not on the razor’s edge,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

Said Morse: “Instead of coming out in spring training and playing every game and being tired by the time spring training is over, I have an opportunity now of getting ready for the season. I feel like last year was just a touch of what I can do. I feel like I can do so much more. I have an idea now. I believe in myself.”

When Morse felt a small twinge on the right side of his back earlier this week, he exercised a luxury he said he would never have considered in previous years: He told someone about it. In years past, Morse would have kept his injury to himself and played through the pain, afraid any time on the sideline could cost him the chance to make the team.

Last spring, Morse built on his strong finish in 2010 by hammering nine home runs, more than any other player in the Grapefruit League. He gave the Nationals no choice but to make him their everyday left fielder.

“Then the season starts,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said, “and nothing mattered.”

By the end of April, Morse was hitting .211 with a .253 on-base percentage, a .268 slugging percentage and one home run. The Nationals started playing Laynce Nix in left field against right-handed starting pitchers. Morse had pressed so hard claiming his job in the spring that, when the season began, he couldn’t perform.

“I was going to camp giving 120 percent trying to make the team,” Morse said. “When the season came around, I was kind of trying to push it to another gear, which, there wasn’t another gear. It actually hurt me. When I realized, ‘Slow down, take one pitch at a time,’ I landed back on my feet.”

Morse may have lost his spot had the labrum tear in Adam LaRoche’s left shoulder not widened to the point where he could not play. When LaRoche underwent surgery, the Nationals shifted Morse to first base. And then he became one the most destructive hitters in the National League: From May 1 until the end of the year, Morse led the majors with a .594 slugging percentage.

Between his slump and his surge, Morse worked with Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein to counter the way pitchers had started attacking him with his inside fastballs. Morse, with his 6-foot-5 frame, always could hammer the ball as hard as any hitter — “you just don’t come across a guy who can make that sound and hit the ball that hard,” Eckstein said — but he had to close that one hole in his swing.

One day, Morse worked with a Nationals trainer who showed him an exercise that loosened his tight hips. He lifted his left knee up and across his body while rotating his midsection over his left side. The stretch, he realized, reminded him of a proper swing at an inside pitch — “an over-exaggeration of what I want to feel at the plate,” he said.

What became his trademark warmup, which he describes as a cobra coil, helped him eliminate the one area he was vulnerable.

“I think he’s still learning about the type of player he could be,” Werth said. “Last year, it was just a glimpse of what he could possibly do.”

Early in the 2009 season, the Seattle Mariners designated Morse for assignment, meaning any team in baseball could claim and add him to their major league roster. None of them did. When Morse reported to Class AAA Tacoma, he found an organization that treated him like a lost cause.

“They told me, ‘Look, I’ve got prospects to play. I might get you in once or twice a week. At what position, I’m not even sure,’ ” Morse said. “It was tough. A lot of guys that that happens to, they fizzle away. I just felt, ‘I’m better than this. I don’t know how it got to this point, but I got to get out of it somehow.’ I told myself I’m going to prove everybody wrong.”

This winter, Major League Baseball invited him on a showcase tour of Taiwan. Fans mobbed him, recognizing him from playing behind Taiwanese superstar Chien-Ming Wang. Morse hit fourth on a team of stars, between New York Yankees Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. He loved every minute.

“It was an accomplishment for me,” Morse said. “I always knew I could do that. For that to happen was gratifying. It was just a reassurance to what I could with my ability.”

 
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