After the Washington Nationals' dramatic comeback Tuesday night, Michael Morse appeared in a television interview with the words "beast mode" sprawled in bold across the front of his shirt.
Fans can only hope that the first baseman's play will continue to reflect that motto, especially with Adam LaRoche facing season-ending shoulder surgery Thursday.
General manager Mike Rizzo called the loss of LaRoche, "a void — not only his offense and his defense, but his leadership." Morse has done an admirable job filling that void. He was hitting only .211 and splitting time in left field before LaRoche was placed on the DL a little more than three weeks ago. But since moving to first base, he has belted 10 home runs — including two in Wednesday night's 10-0 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals. He's also hitting .312 for the season.
"I thought he looked good there last year, so I'm not surprised," manager Jim Riggleman said, "but I don't think anybody would have known he was going to play as good as he has."
Taking over a new position is nothing new for Morse, who was originally drafted as a shortstop and started this season in left field. He has experience at nearly every position but had started just 12 games at first base before taking over for LaRoche on May 23. Even so, Riggleman now considers first to be his natural position.
"I think Mike — if needed — can play third, he can play outfield, but really first base is his best position," he said. "And he hits like a first baseman, so that's where he profiles out to be the best at."
"I'm [just] comfortable that the manager thinks I'm comfortable," Morse agreed. "I've always said that my best position is the one I'm playing that day."
He also has been able to make up for the outstanding defense that Washington lost with LaRoche sidelined. The last time he committed an error was nearly six years ago, on Aug. 15, 2005, when he was a shortstop for the Seattle Mariners. He has yet to commit an error in more than 350 innings at first base.
"I work on everything and I take my defense very seriously," Morse said, explicitly asking not to bring up any stats or streaks. "I can't really pinpoint which position I'm best at because I try to be the best at all of them."
However, Morse's real growth has come at the plate, where his ballooning numbers reflect a new attitude in the batter's box. He has recently been slotted in the middle of the order, including Wednesday night in the fifth spot after Ryan Zimmerman and Laynce Nix. His teammates trust him to knock in runs and as Danny Espinosa put it, "his at-bats speak for [themselves]."
Morse is beginning to approach each at-bat with a newfound confidence, trying to play within his abilities and battle through every at-bat.
"I'm going up there with the mental state that I'm better than that guy on the mound and there's no way he can get me out," Morse said. "It's been working, you know, it's just a frame of mind. All of us have the ability, and now it's the mental ability that separates guys."
As for the idea that switching Morse to first has allowed him to concentrate more on hitting, Riggleman is not a believer.
"Somebody used the example to me one time [that] Reggie Jackson hit homers whether he was a DH or playing right field - he just hit homers," Riggleman said. "I think the good ones do that."
Morse is certainly not Jackson, but he has emerged as a quality long-term solution at first base for the Nats. With any luck, he'll have plenty more opportunities to break out the "beast mode" shirt as Washington creeps closer to the .500 mark.
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