Morse’s return unifies heart of Nationals’ lineup

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TORONTO — Davey Johnson extended his right arm and pointed toward dead center field in Rogers Centre. His eyes followed his arm to the panel of glass windows at least 450 feet away.

In eight games since Michael Morse has returned from a two-month stay on the disabled list, he’s shown flashes of the slugger who hit 31 homers and drove in 95 runs in 2011. He’s also struggled to get his timing where it needs to be after such a long layoff from major league pitching, and he’s still waiting for the first long ball.

But in early batting practice Monday, in a ballpark Johnson lauded for what a wonderful place it was to hit, Morse was every bit himself.

“He was hitting them off those glass facings out there,” Johnson said. “Those big, strong hitters, it usually takes them a little longer to get going. He should be up for this one.”

As the Nationals begin a three-game series in Toronto, facing the Blue Jays for the first time since 2007, they’ll begin their second full week of games with the heart of their order — Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Morse — together in the lineup.

The results thus far have been mixed. There are games when they seem to click, one benefiting from the other batting behind him. But together, since Morse returned, they’re hitting a combined .177 with seven extra-base hits (three home runs).

None of the three has noticed an immediate difference in the way they’re being pitched because of the current lineup construction. But they’re expecting it to come.

“I know it does have an impact, overall, because of what the pitcher has to think about,” LaRoche said. “Nothing specific yet.”

LaRoche would know, having spent plenty of his time with the Atlanta Braves hitting behind Chipper Jones and behind or in front of Andruw Jones. In 2004, LaRoche hit 32 home runs in that lineup. For the Diamondbacks in 2010, he hit 25 homers sandwiched between Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds.

“I’ve had guys behind me that were really struggling and I’m not getting any pitches,” LaRoche said. “But I remember in Atlanta, there for a couple years I was like the last guy they thought about. I was the guy in the lineup that, this is the guy we want, so I was able to hit a bunch of homers.

“They knew what I could do but they also knew, ‘OK, we can’t mess around because of who’s coming up next.’ The more you can pack that lineup, there’s no break. It helps everyone.”

Morse shrugged off the suggestion. “I have no clue,” he said, asked if he noticed more pitches to hit when batting in front of LaRoche. “I’m just trying to get a hit.”

Morse still is being pitched to somewhat carefully, even if on reputation alone. In 522 at-bats in 2011, Morse walked just 36 times (6.3 percent). In 32 at-bats entering Monday night, Morse already had walked three times (8.6 percent).

“He’s still got a lot of respect in the league,” Johnson said. “His presence in the lineup is a big presence. This game’s a lot mental, too and having him in the middle of that lineup is a big boost to us.”

If and when Morse begins to heat up, when he begins to hit the ball out of the ballpark and prove that he’s back to the hitter he was in 2011, then LaRoche, Zimmerman and even Ian Desmond, behind him, will begin to see a difference.

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