- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2011

For much of his career in a Washington Nationals uniform, Michael Morse had walked a fine line between the unknown and the underutilized. He performed exceptionally well in a bench role, but when handed an everyday job coming out of spring training this year, he stumbled.

There’s not much that is a mystery about Morse’s abilities anymore.

With the eighth-best slugging percentage in the major leagues and a .364 batting average since May 1, it’s almost more surprising when he doesn’t power the ball than when he hits another game-breaking home run. Seven of his 13 home runs this season have come when the Nationals were tied and plenty looked just like the one he sent into the Nationals’ bullpen Saturday afternoon to lead his team to its eighth straight victory, this one 4-2 over the Baltimore Orioles.

“He can be a No. 3, 4, 5, hitter in this league and I think he’s finally realized that,” said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who stroked his own home run in the first inning to tie the game up at 1 and was on base for Morse’s blast.

“He’s not going to want to say that or by any means say that he’s there,” Zimmerman said. “But you can just tell by the way he prepares, the way he goes into every game. The sky’s the limit for him now, because his talent is just through the roof.”

Never has that been more evident than in the Nationals’ last 44 games. Since the start of May, Morse has a .728 slugging percentage, has hit 12 of his 13 home runs and has provided spotless defense at first base in the absence of Adam LaRoche — a loss that also gave Morse a second opportunity to be an everyday player.

Since taking over the first base duties, Morse has become one of the biggest bats in a lineup that continues to heat up as the Nationals and their winning streak roll on. One more win and the Nationals will have climbed back to a .500 mark that looked impossible to reach only weeks ago. Two more and they’ll have tied the longest streak in Nationals history.

“A [.500 record] was kind of a target for us a couple weeks ago,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman after his team tied the second-longest winning streak since moving to D.C. “Three weeks ago we felt like: ‘We’re not going to catch the Phillies tomorrow and we’re not going to catch the Braves tomorrow. Let’s attack each game and set a goal that maybe we can attain. Let’s get to .500 and if we do that then we can set some more goals.’”

They’re getting dangerously close to needing a higher bar. The key to the streak, they say, is pitching and defense — and they’ve gotten both on a near-nightly basis. But even on an afternoon when starter Jordan Zimmermann termed his own outing “a battle” and pitched just two clean innings in the 6 1/3 he lasted, the outcome was never really in doubt.

“You can’t keep our hitters down for nine innings,” Zimmermann said. “You know they’re going to bust out sooner or later.”

That was exactly the case Saturday after the Nats were baffled by Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz through the game’s first five innings, Zimmerman’s homer aside. Despite Matusz’s uncharacteristically low velocity that never broke 90 mph, the Nationals were kept largely quiet.

The Nats were able to break through for three runs in the sixth — two from Morse and an insurance run on an RBI-double by Ivan Rodriguez, and their bullpen bent but did not break.

The last time a Nationals team reached a .500 mark this late in the year was on the final day of the 2005 season. That inaugural club finished the year at 81-81 and it’s been all downhill since. One more win and this incarnation can attempt to step into the rarefied air that they’ve floated under for so long.

“It’s just time,” Zimmerman said. “I think we’re finally getting to that hump. I don’t know if we’re over it yet. I think the second half of this year is going to be a big test for us. We know it’s not going to get any easier, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“All this that’s happening to us right now is happening for a reason,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know. I just feeling something very positive around here and we’ve got to just keep playing.”