Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that Nationals first baseman Michael Morse’s .323 batting average was the second best in the National League. In fact, he ranked third, behind the New York Mets’ Jose Reyes (.336) and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun (.329). This version has been updated.
Michael Morse months ago dashed the last remaining doubts about whether he could play every day in the major leagues, and now he is using the final stretch of this season to grind them into dust. Morse provided the Washington Nationals a cheery subplot with a wicked offensive surge in June. And then something unexpected happened. Morse never stopped hitting baseballs as hard as any player on Earth.
The Nationals will play the final six weeks with an emphasis on their future, and Tuesday night Morse again showed why he has become an integral part of it, and also why he will find himself playing left field on occasion for the remainder of the season.
In a 6-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds before 23,888 at Nationals Park, Morse roped an RBI double and crushed his 21st home run, both hits to the opposite field. Morse’s offense backed up Chien-Ming Wang, who won his second consecutive game and pitched 61 / 3 innings, his longest start since June 10, 2008.
Morse raised his average to .323, ranking him third in the National League. His slugging and on-base percentages this season are better than Albert Pujols’s. And since the all-star break Morse has hit .364 with a .424 on-base percentage and a .645 slugging percentage. The Nationals went into this season hoping one or two of their young players would establish themselves as a legitimate future star. It turns out a hulking, 29-year-old former shortstop did.
“It’s great,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a towering solo homer. “Mike’s worked really hard to get to where he is. He just continues to be consistent. It’s just one of those years where he’s finally figured it out. He’s always been talented like this. We’re just lucky to have him on our team when he figured it out. He’s a good teammate. He works hard. Hopefully he can be here for a long time.”
Morse has forced the Nationals to find a place for him, which could change his position at times for the remainder of this season. The Nationals anticipate Morse, who is not a free agent until 2014, will become a fixture in the middle of their lineup. But they also have Adam LaRoche signed to play in 2012 for $8 million.
And so, Manager Davey Johnson said, Morse will see action in left field, where he started this season, in order to prepare him to play there next year when LaRoche returns from shoulder surgery. Playing Morse in left also will provide the Nationals an opportunity to give Class AAA Syracuse first baseman Chris Marrero, a 23-year-old hitting .309 this year, his first crack in the major leagues.
“Ideally, when LaRoche comes back, we’ll have LaRoche at first and probably have [Morse] in left field,” Johnson said. “But we’re definitely going to have him somewhere every day.”
Morse has prospered at first base, hitting .344/.402/.624 when playing first compared to .256/.273/.354 in left field. Although Johnson said infielders “can get of bored” when playing outfield and let it affect them at the plate, Morse dismissed the difference as pure coincidence.
“I don’t mind it. I look at that lineup, and whatever it says, I play,” Morse said. “Once you’re in the field, that has nothing to do with what you do at the plate. It’s two different parts of the game. I had a good year last year, and I played right field.”
Wherever he plays, the Nationals want him stepping into the batter’s box four or five times every night. In his first at-bat Tuesday, he ripped an RBI double to the gap in right-center, which preceded Ian Desmond’s two-RBI single. In his next at-bat, he displayed his opposite-field power, the thing that may stand out most.
With the bases empty in the third inning, the count 2-1, Reds starter Mike Leake tried to fool Morse by throwing him a third consecutive slider. Morse stayed back as the ball broke over the plate and drilled the ball over the scoreboard in right field, the sixth opposite-field home run he has hit this season.
“It’s really impressive,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to hit the ball that way in the big leagues, not too many people do it. And to be able to do it on the pitches that he does, it was a slider. Just to be able to stay on the ball and trust your plan and then put a swing like that on it, it’s pretty impressive.”
Zimmerman later added another impressive piece of hitting. As he walked out of the dugout to lead off the fifth, Johnson said, Zimmerman turned to his teammates and said, “He’s going to throw me a fastball in. And I’m going to hit it out of the ballpark.”
Leake threw Zimmerman one slider for a strike, and then there it was — a fastball inside. Zimmerman turned on it and crushed it down the left field line. The ball landed four or five rows shy of the concourse behind the seats.
Afterward, Zimmerman sheepishly said: “If Davey said I did it, then I might have. But I don’t know. We’ll see.” Johnson had no problem explaining.
“He said he’s going to hit a bomb,” Johnson said. “I guess the guy was throwing fastballs in early in the count. He said, ‘When he does that, I’m just going to hit it out of the ballpark.’ It didn’t surprise any of us.”
After Zimmerman circled the bases, the first face that greeted him was that of Morse, the cleanup hitter. Johnson had moved him there immediately after he took over as manager. Zimmerman can see him staying there for several years to come. The Nationals can, too.
“He’s been really consistent all year,” Johnson said. “Even since I’ve been here, he hasn’t had even, really, a bad day. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”