The apex of Michael Morse’s current hitting streak, the one that has made him “the hottest hitter in baseball” in the description of one teammate, brought him Friday night to the edge of the home dugout at Nationals Park. The place was still erupting, delirious after Morse delivered the most meaningful hit of this Washington Nationals season.
Morse’s walk-off home run had lifted the Nationals to a 2-1 win over the San Diego Padres, a victory that halted their season-high losing skid at five and cleansed them of a horrendous road trip. As Morse stood in front of the dugout for a television interview, many of the 21,024 still screaming, Jerry Hairston sneaked behind him and slammed a whipped-cream pie in his face. Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa went a step further, dumping an entire Gatorade tub on Morse. The liquid felt like jumping in a cold tub.
“The full Gatorade bath?” Morse said later. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”
The sensation spread to the rest of the Nationals. They came home Friday after a 1-7 road trip that dropped them to their lowest point of the season. After John Lannan allowed two hits in 72 / 3 scoreless innings only to watch Drew Storen blow a save opportunity for the first time this season in the ninth, the Nationals moved to the brink of squandering a win they desperately needed.
And then Morse led off the bottom of the ninth and crushed the only pitch Padres reliever Mike Adams threw — an 89 mph slider — into the bullpen behind the left field fence. His teammates huddled at home plate and mobbed him as he touched the dish, instantly shedding a week’s worth of frustration.
“We needed that,” Hairston said. “Hopefully, this is the start of something good. This definitely helps.”
Morse provided an unsurprising hero, continuing a torrid week that coincided with his taking over full-time at first base for Adam LaRoche, who’s on the disabled list and may not make it back this year. Morse has hit a home run in the past four games, and he’s 9 for 21 in his last five.
“I try to keep it as simple as possible,” Morse said. “It took me a long time to understand that. A lot of work with [batting coach] Rick Eckstein. He’s put up with me for a long time. He’s got me believing in myself.”
Morse, who also singled Friday night, began the season as the Nationals’ everyday left fielder, but lost his position as he hit .211 with a .253 on-base percentage and a .268 slugging percentage in 23 games in April. Morse has raised those averages to .288/.310/.475 while hitting home runs that have left no doubt — “he’s just got that natural power,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “They go for him.”
Morse has often been asked what led to his surge. He seems as stumped as anyone else.
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” Morse said. “One thing I didn’t do is lose faith in myself.”
Said Riggleman: “We’ve all seen this from Mike. It got away from him a little bit. Now he’s just playing baseball, not necessarily trying to hold on to a position, just go try to play the game. He’s not over-thinking things. He’s just hacking.”
While Morse provided the final blow, Lannan shaped the win. Along with the two hits, both singles, Lannan allowed two walks and struck out five. He did not allow a ball to reach an outfielder until Chase Headley rolled a single up the middle with one out in the fifth, the first hit Lannan allowed.
Lannan entered with a 5.03 ERA, still searching after 10 starts for the first time he felt great on the mound. Even with a 50-minute delay that struck in the fourth inning, Lannan found it Friday. The opponent may have helped — the Padres entered with the lowest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the league — but Lannan was excellent.
“I think I’ve said ‘battle’ every start until tonight,” Lannan said. “Tonight, I had everything going.”
No pitch mattered more than his sinker. Lannan coaxed 14 groundball outs and just four flyouts, and two of those were caught by infielders. Lannan threw 70 sinkers in his latest bullpen session, trying to capture the comfort he usually has with the pitch.
“I finally got a feel for it,” Lannan said.
He got all the offense he seemingly needed when Danny Espinosa hit a homer in the fifth, his seventh of the season, giving him less than only Robinson Cano and Rickie Weeks among second basemen. Storen, who had escaped a two-out, two-on jam in the eighth, allowed a homer to Jason Bartlett to open the ninth to tie the score.
The Nationals do not do simple. Morse bailed out the Nationals with his homer. They sunk to last place with their dismal road trip, but they get five more games at home, where they are 12-9. They’re still playing without Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche, and their streak-snapping win came over one of three teams that entered Friday with a worse record than themselves. But they aren’t calling it a season yet.
“You know what?” Morse said. “We’re fighting.”