Morse looking to be the Nats’ Mr. Reliable

Team hopes slugger can play full season

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Michael Morse is great at spring training.

Averaging the Nationals’ new everyday left fielder’s spring training stats from the past four years, you’d get a player with a .359 batting average and a .411 on-base percentage.

So while his .365 average and .425 OBP this spring - to go along with nine homers and an obscene .841 slugging percentage - aren’t exactly a surprise, they are, and will always be, the first ones that solidified a starting job for the 29-year-old Morse.

It’s an exciting prospect for the converted infielder. Almost 11 years after the White Sox made him their third-round pick in the 2000 draft, Morse will open the season with a team expecting to give him 500-600 at-bats and let him play all 162 if he so desires.

“I can’t wait,” Morse said recently.

He admitted that he’s more excited for this season than any other in his career: “I have every reason to be.”

Morse was a near-everyday player for the Nationals last year and became even more of a familiar face when Josh Willingham went down with a knee injury in mid-August. From Aug. 10 through the end of the season, Morse played in 47 games, hit .270 with a .345 OBP, hit seven home runs and drove in 21.

“The difference now is that he’s not only doing it in the spring,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He did it last year in the second half, too.

“He comes in this year and he continues that, and even more, and it just becomes apparent that we’ve got to put him out there and see if he can be our everyday left fielder on a regular basis.”

It’s an offer that comes with its share of challenges. Morse has never had more than 266 at-bats in a major league season and before last year, when he hit .289 with 15 homers and 41 RBI in those 266, he’d gone four straight years without getting more than 55.

The unknown with Morse is whether he can produce the way he did last year, and this spring, over the course of a whole season.

To that end, Morse is preparing.

He has worked with Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein all spring on developing a pregame routine - a sequence that he’ll go through each morning when he arrives at the park that involves hitting for about 10 minutes in the cage and making sure he feels loose and ready before taking the field.

And he’s asked around, utilizing the expertise of veteran teammates and coaches to his advantage - none more so than Jayson Werth, the one person in all of Major League Baseball Morse would compare himself to, and now, finally, a teammate.

“[My relationship with Werth] is better than I thought it could ever be,” said Morse, whose admiration for Werth has been well documented. “Hes an amazing guy. He helps me whenever possible, especially in the outfield. Hes played left, he knows how tough left is, he tells me little tips here and there, and its always good to hear from players - especially good outfielders.

“He knows how it feels for a guy like me to do things because hes of the same stature. Somebody might tell you to do something one way and it might not feel right, he might say another way and it might feel exactly right.”

The comparisons between the Nationals’ right and left fielders don’t end with their 6-foot-5, 220- (Werth) and 230- (Morse) pound statures. Morse, like Werth, is considered a late bloomer, and both struggled to find a position or a team to stick with early in their respective careers.

Morse and the Nationals can only hope the comparisons continue.

But until there’s a late-blooming outfielder being compared positively to him, Morse is fine with continuing to prove himself, even if the 2011 season could be the season that helps him to not have to do it anymore.

“I battle,” Morse said. “That’s the only thing I know how to do. Since I started playing I’ve always had to fight my way on the team and fight to show people who I am. I don’t want to change that. I like the challenge.

“At the end of the day, if you’re not doing your job, they’ll find somebody who will.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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