Michael Morse enjoying breakout season for Nationals

Jacquelyn Martin/AP - Michael Morse and fans react after he’s hit in the face with a pie. He scored a walkoff home run in the ninth inning against the San Diego Padres on May 27.

The hottest hitter in the National League slaps himself in the head during his home run trots, which have occurred with enough frequency that it now amounts to an involuntary reaction. “I don’t even notice I do it,” Michael Morse said. “Maybe I’m congratulating myself. Telling myself, ‘Good job.’ ”

Morse advises reporters not to mention his statistics during interviews. He has worn the same T-shirt — which displays the words “Beast Mode” — every day for more than a month. He speaks softly about hitting, as if trying not to let the baseball gods hear him. “Just going up there and having quality at-bats,” is how he might explain the torrid month that has vaulted him from the Washington Nationals’ bench to all-star consideration.

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Morse took a winding, unique path to where he is now, to the brink of stardom, and he wants nothing to disrupt him. As the Nationals surged into respectability with an eight-game winning streak, no hitter played a more important, more surprising role than Morse. He took over at first base for the injured Adam LaRoche on May 22. He has 11 home runs since, more than any hitter in the major leagues. He has two fewer RBI than Albert Pujols — 43 to 45 — in 94 fewer plate appearances.

“I’m just playing the game,” Morse said. “I’m just staying within myself, just playing the game. I don’t think like that. I’m just going up there and trying to have good at-bats and trying to battle with the pitcher every at-bat.”

Morse did not have the requisite 3.1 plate appearances per game to qualify for National League leader boards until this weekend, and now that he does he dots the top of them. Coming out of the weekend, he was fourth in slugging (.564), sixth in OPS (.925) and eighth in batting average (.309).

All of that would have been hard to believe at the end of April, when Morse — then hitting .211/.253/.268 — lost the left field position he earned in spring training to Laynce Nix. It would have been harder to believe in the middle of 2009, when he was a utility infielder stuck at Class AAA Tacoma, promising himself his career had not dead-ended.

The Seattle Mariners will come to Nationals Park for the first time Tuesday night, and if things had been different, Morse could have been playing for them. In spring training 2009, Morse entered his fourth season with the Mariners organization. The Mariners had a new general manager, Jack Zduriencik, and a new coaching staff.

“I basically didn’t know anybody,” Morse said. “I had an idea going into camp that I might be the odd man out.”

Morse had appeared in 107 major league games for the Mariners between 2005 and 2008, but he never found a position. The Chicago White Sox drafted him as a shortstop in 2000, and, despite his hulking frame, that’s where he always wanted to play. Morse had grown up in Davie, Fla., not far from where Alex Rodriguez became a prototype for oversized shortstops. Morse met Rodriguez briefly after high school, and Rodriguez told him, “Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not a shortstop.”

Even by 2009, no one had told him that — he played 25 games at shortstop for Tacoma, along with 36 at either second base or third base and four in right field.

“I thought he would always be able to hit,” Tacoma Manager Daren Brown said. “The thing we had with him here was, where was he going to play? He’s kind of slipped around all over the field, really trying to find a spot to get his bat in the lineup.”

On June 28, Brown called Morse into his office. Morse thought he was being promoted. Brown told him he had been traded to the Nationals. Morse thought Brown was joking. “I remember him being, I would say, a little bit confused,” Brown said.

Zduriencik had called Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo wanting to trade for outfielder Ryan Langerhans, a defensive whiz. Rizzo and his staff had identified bit pieces the Mariners might trade from their farm system. Morse was atop the list.

“I just liked his athleticism, his size, his strength component,” Rizzo said. “We obviously thought he looked out of place playing shortstop. We thought that a position change was inevitable. We liked the way he swung the bat. It was a team scouting effort on our part. We had seen him a lot. He wasn’t the first guy they wanted to give up, but we stuck on him.”

Morse’s efficient swing, and the underlying figures that reveal just how much he is massacring the ball this season suggest this is an honest-to-goodness breakout — Jose Bautista-lite, maybe — and not a fluky blip. After a suggestion from hitting coach Rick Eckstein, Morse began to stand at the plate with his arms extended and in front of him, a position that allows him to wait, recognize the pitch and made a quick, powerful stroke.

No one in the National League has hit baseballs harder with more consistency than Morse. He has smacked a line drive on 25 percent of the pitches he’s put into play, the third-highest rate in the league. And 15.5 percent of the balls he’s hit in the air have landed on the other side of the fence, fifth best in the NL.

Morse’s sudden emergence may just be the end of his natural progression. It’s hard to guess which hitters might bloom late, but starting with the tall ones is a good bet. Morse is the same 6 feet 5 inches as Jayson Werth, whom Morse has long viewed as a model for his career.

“Anytime you’re talking about a pretty good-sized kid, there’s a lot of things that have to be working right for good things to happen,” Brown said. “Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of time to find yourself.”

 
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