Michael Morse stood on the dugout steps at Nationals Park as warm wind jostled his mop of hair and pumped his arms toward the dark sky.
The crowd that looked and sounded like more than the announced 34,827 roared approval after the left fielder’s grand slam Friday night and, for a few minutes, washed away memories of his challenging season.
A strained lat muscle cost Morse the season’s first two months and he’s spent much of the time since trying to rediscover the powerful swing that delivered 31 home runs and “Beast Mode” T-shirts in 2011.
That includes moments of unbridled enthusiasm like the curtain call following the fourth-inning grand slam off left-hander Johan Santana and, a couple of hours later, slipping out of the clubhouse without speaking to the media postgame as country music blared.
That came in handy against Santana. After he no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1, his season has disintegrated. Santana, making $24 million this season with another $25.5 million due in 2013, has surrendered 61 hits, including 13 home runs, and 39 runs over 44 innings. His ERA shot up from 2.38 to 4.85 after Friday’s trouble.
In the fourth, an inning after a complaint from Johnson forced Santana to cover the gold Rawlings logo on his glove with blue tape because of concerns over the reflection, the Nationals hit three straight singles up the middle. That included a liner from Ryan Zimmerman that nearly decapitated Santana and may have saved his pitching line further damage.
Up came Morse and the echoes of A-ha’s “Take on me” had barely faded when he broke his bat fouling off a 90-mph fastball that jammed him. So, Santana threw another one of the 90-mph pitches that bore little resemblence to the ones that helped him earn the Cy Young in 2004 and 2006 with the Minnesota Twins. This time, Morse ripped the ball into the right-center field stands for the team’s first grand slam of the season and ignited a celebration that sounded, for a few minutes, like an honest-to-goodness pennant race for the team with baseball’s top record.
“That’s one of the best parts of the game right there,” Nationals starter Ross Detwiler said.
Still regaining strength after an illness hampered his previous start, Detwiler scattered six hits and three runs over six innings. The biggest problem came in the first, when four straight batters reached base and Detwiler’s sinker didn’t sink.
After an early visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty — Detwiler couldn’t recall what McCatty said — the left-hander discovered sink for his sinker and better-located his pitches down in the strike zone.
Bryce Harper added a two-run home run to right field in the fifth with the trajectory of a laser beam, as the rookie reached base three times.
But the night belonged to Morse and the ball he sent into the night, even if he didn’t stick around to enjoy it.
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