The Washington Times - May 2, 2011, 11:54PM

The Nationals have been talking an awful lot lately about their group of “professional hitters.”

Given the fact that they’re hitting .226 as a team through their first 900 collective at-bats, there’s not much that seems professional about their numbers. But the connotation is more about their mentality than their production.

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Four of the Nationals’ main starters — including Jerry Hairston Jr. while Ryan Zimmerman’s out — have a combined 31-plus years of service in the major leagues. They’re all hitting .233 or below.

Rick Ankiel (.221), Jayson Werth (.233), Adam LaRoche (.189) and Hairston (.200) all have the track record to back them up when they say that they’re going to come around. Eventually. Eventually things will click. Eventually, their numbers, much like water, will seek their levels.

But they’re not the only ones who are struggling early this season. Danny Espinosa has cooled considerably from a hot start, dropping his average to .217 after an 0-for-4 on Monday night and Ian Desmond has come out of an early-season slump to raise his average to .245 but below them both is Michael Morse. The left fielder who hit almost everything that was tossed in his direction during spring training, has just 16 hits in 74 at-bats during the regular season.

It’s with those young hitters where the “professionalism” of those veterans becomes even more vital.

After Morse and Hairston each struck out in the fifth inning Monday night to strand Wilson Ramos, Hairston took the opportunity to offer some advice to Morse. In the seventh, Morse drove in the game-winning run and Hairston followed with an RBI-double to give the Nationals their only runs of the night.

“Ironically, me and him had a little chat an inning before (the seventh) and I told him, look 70-80 at-bats, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing. I’ve played with great players that have hit .190 in their first 200 at-bats and ended up hitting .300… That’s the game. Sometimes you have your good months, sometimes you have your bad months. But you have to keep grinding. He did that. He picked himself up and got a huge hit for us.

“He picked me up, I picked him up. That’s just the name of the game. That’s what being a team is about. Sometimes it ain’t going to go your way. You’ve just got to keep scratching and clawing and that’s a credit to him. He didn’t let it get to him. He came up with a clutch situation and he came through.

“Me and him had a chance in the fifth and we “failed.” Game ain’t over. You’ve got to credit the pitcher sometimes and hey, sometimes he’s going to get you. Obviously he didn’t want to strikeout, I didn’t want to strikeout, but we did. It’s over and done with and you’ve got to believe that you’re going to get a second chance. This game is funny. You’re in that situation where you do (get a second chance) and we both came through but if we weren’t positive, we wouldn’t have came through. That’s what this game’s about.”

Hairston said after the seventh the two shared a smile in the dugout before heading out the field for the top of the eighth and — in an indication of how seriously he takes his role as a veteran leader on this team — likened the moment to many he shared with his father over the years.

“I’m very fortunate to have a dad who played this game and he reminds me of that over and over again. My grandfather reminded him and this game is not easy. But that’s why you scratch and claw every inning.

“He wasn’t down. I was just, as a veteran guy, just reiterating that hey, ‘We’re going to get him.’ He responded. That’s him. He’s a tough guy so it was great for us to see him do that.”

Whether the moment between the two had anything to do with their results in their next at-bats is tough to quantify but it certainly meant enough to both for them to mention it and it was the boost the Nationals needed to complete a series victory over the reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

“We saw each other down in the tunnel and just told each other, take this at-bat, get rid of it. Get it out of your mind,” Morse said. “Our next at-bat, we’re going to do something special.”

“We got a professional team out here. These guys, from the pitching staff to the bullpen to the guys on the bench, everybody is a really, really good professional player. And they’re professional at their job. These are the kind of games we expect to have a lot of.”