- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2011

PITTSBURGH | More often than not this season, the Nationals have had to manufacture their runs. They haven’t come easy and, when they’ve come at all, they’ve usually been the product of aggressive base running or sacrifices or timely base hits.

That was the way they scratched out their first run against the Pirates on Sunday, scoring Danny Espinosa on a groundout by Adam LaRoche to tie the game in the third inning.

But they had no need for any of that after Michael Morse came to the plate two batters later and cleared the bases with his first home run of the season into the left-field stands at PNC Park. The three-run shot gave Jason Marquis a lead he would not relinquish in the Nationals’ 6-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, snapping a three-game losing streak.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, whose team tallied a season-high 15 hits, including a home run by LaRoche to lead off the fifth inning and a pinch-hit RBI double by Laynce Nix in the eighth.

“When Mike’s on top of his game, he hits for extra-base hits and really got a timely one there because we were kind of passing up some opportunities, and he got us a big one.”

“I saw a pitch and I hit it,” Morse said, simplifying what happened on the 2-2 offering from Pirates starter Kevin Correia, who the Nationals chased after just 4 1/3 innings. “It was a fastball in, got a good part of the barrel and it went out.”

Perhaps the biggest weakness in the Nationals’ offense as they’ve struggled to find their rhythm throughout the season’s first month has been the inability of the middle of their lineup to meet expectations. Hurt by the loss of Ryan Zimmerman to an abdominal strain, Jayson Werth, LaRoche and Morse, their No.’s 3, 4 and 5 hitters Sunday were hitting a combined .215 entering the game.

And while Werth and LaRoche have, at times, looked locked in, Morse has struggled to replicate the numbers he put up in spring training - the ones that solidified the everyday left fielder’s job and got him slotted into the middle of the order.

But Morse seems to be a streaky hitter, and while he was running cold for the first 12 games of the season, the past eight he’s been one of the Nationals’ hottest batters, going 10-for-23, a .435 clip, and raising his batting average from a paltry .133 on April 14 to .259.

On Sunday, he raised his average from .220 to .259 with a 3-for-4 afternoon.

“It’s nice to put a bunch of hits together like we did today,” LaRoche said. “That’s been kind of few and far between. Our pitchers have been keeping us in there, but we haven’t been able to get the big hit.

“It’d be huge [if the middle of the order heats up]. You look at the averages right now, and it’s not real good and not a ton of guys on base. I don’t think you’re ever going to have everybody clicking at once, but if we can get the majority of the guys going and getting a lot of guys on base, we got one through nine that could drive in runs.”

That statement was especially true Sunday as Marquis, who entered the game with the highest batting average of anyone in the starting lineup, raised his average to .400 on the season (4-for-9) with two singles in three at-bats.

He also managed to pitch six innings and allow just three runs despite admittedly not feeling as comfortable as usual on the mound.

“Today was a little bit more of a grind for me than my past games,” he said. ” We put up four runs in the third, which definitely helped out… I try to take pride in everything I do and I work on [hitting]. Obviously today it worked out where I got a couple hits and started a big inning. I think any pitcher who steps in the box should take pride in what they do and maybe help them win a ballgame.”

Werth, who was 0-for-5 with a run scored, gunned out Andrew McCutchen attempting to score on a flyout by Jose Tabata to end the game and allow the Nationals to win for the first time since Wednesday.

“We played good baseball,” Riggleman said. “We want to have three or four guys going at the same time. Hopefully, we’ll all get it going… We’ve got a lot of good players. We’re going to win our share of games. When we’re hitting on all cylinders we’re going to do fine, but we’ve got to win games when we’re not hitting on all cylinders, too.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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