The Washington Times - March 19, 2011, 06:03PM

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Mired in an 0-for-14 slump Friday afternoon, Michael Morse took to the batting cage at Space Coast Stadium.

The Nationals were fresh off their fifth straight loss of the spring and the team’s hottest hitter this preseason had cooled considerably. He went to the cages and worked with hitting coach Rick Eckstein on small adjustments to his swing — ways to help him “let the ball travel more.”

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The slump reached 0-for-16 on Saturday before Morse laced a sinking double into right field.

“I’m (working at) seeing the ball better,” Morse said. “When you play every day, you’ve got to know your swing and you’ve got to tinker with it here and there.”

Morse has been given the job as the Nationals’ starting left fielder. If that holds throughout the season, the 28-year-old will see a career-high in at-bats and one of the things he’s working on this spring is establishing a routine of work in the cages before games so that he can maintain, to a certain extent, the hectic pace he set for himself with a torrid spring.

“Pretty much all the best hitters in baseball have (a routine),” Morse said. “So I’m going to try to do that, especially if I’m playing every day, to get in a good routine, to get me going, to get me ready for my first at-bat.”

Marquis faces first struggles of the spring: Jason Marquis’ sterling spring training hit a speed bump on Saturday when the right-hander was tagged with six earned runs off nine hits and three walks in 3.2 innings.

The start boiled down to a tough first inning for the Marquis — who got the ground balls he generally aims for but couldn’t seem to get the outs.

“Early in the game, if it could go wrong it did,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.

Marquis allowed four runs in the inning off four hits and two walks, and it could have been worse. Marquis was aided by an absolute rocket throw from right field by Rick Ankiel to get Lucas Duda at home plate for the inning’s final out.

The right-hander settled down after that and the final two runs charged to him came when Tyler Clippard served up a bases-clearing triple in the fourth, once Marquis had been removed because he’d reached his pitch limit for the day (80).

It was easily the worst start of the spring for Marquis but that’s more of a comment on how well he’s done to this point than it is on his performance on Saturday. In his three starts prior, Marquis had allowed just one run in 12 innings of work.

“I was just falling behind and getting in a lot of hitters counts,” Marquis said. “I still feel good physically and to me, that’s the most important thing heading into the season. Obviously you want to have success, and throwing some good games early on definitely helped with that, but if you throw a bad one in there, sit back and watch the film and see what you can do better.”

Broderick, Slaten, Balester solid:  I wrote yesterday that Brian Broderick was making a strong case to be kept on the 25-man roster and the Rule V pick proved his worth again today with another hitless inning of relief. In doing so, he also passed another so-called test by pitching in back-to-back games.

Doug Slaten and Collin Balester also turned in strong performances with Slaten allowing one hit in a scoreless seventh and Balester closing things out by giving up just one hit and striking out two across the eighth and ninth innings.

While Slaten has an advantage in the bullpen competition by being left-handed, he’s pitched well. Balester faces a bit of a more uphill battle to earn a spot but hasn’t done anything to harm his chances, working to a 2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings.