- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2011

CHICAGO — The man with the third-best batting average in the National League got off to a .211 start to the season and hasn’t looked back since. From a Beast Mode shirt to a newly-unveiled “Hammer Time” tee and throughout all 19 of his helmet-slamming home runs, he hasn’t looked back.

The man who possesses the highest in-season batting average mark in Nationals history stands on-deck each night, contorts his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame and holds the pose. Bringing his left leg up, and his arms above his head, Michael Morse reminds himself each time he steps in the box of “the feel” for his hitting position.

With a .324 average heading into Monday night’s series opener with the Chicago Cubs, Morse has stopped being one of the hottest hitters in the major leagues and now may simply just be one of the best. Once the calendar turned to May, Morse has been nearly unstoppable, hitting .403 in May, .299 in June, .344 in July and .452 in August.

If he continues that way for the season’s final two months, he may well be contending for the National League batting title. Entering Monday, Morse was behind only New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes (.336) and Milwaukee left fielder Ryan Braun (.326). Reyes just went on the disabled list with a left hamstring pull.

“Very seldom do you see somebody with his kind of power win a batting title,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “Not saying it can’t be done. He hits the ball to all fields, and he has power to all fields, so there’s a definite chance he can hit for a good average and also drive in runs.”

For Morse, to even be in contention for the title would be the culmination of a lengthy maturation process one that began years ago, long before he joined the Nationals organization. It was only in spring training this past March, though, that Morse had something of an epiphany with hitting coach Rick Eckstein: He discovered “the feel.”

“There’s a feel associated with hitting and the position [Morse holds before his at-bats] is the feel,” Eckstein said, recalling how excited Morse was in Port St. Lucie, Fla., this spring when he finally understood and discovered the position for himself. “It’s what he feels when he’s trying to mimic the position in his head.

“It’s a process of how his trigger starts, gets him into a hitting position and ultimately executes his swing. It kind of feels like that. It’s just kind of the whole thing balled into one little move.”

That, along with an awareness now of what he’s doing wrong when he makes an out and what he’s doing right when he succeeds - has helped Morse close a hole in his swing on pitches inside and maintain exceptional consistency.

“He’s always been physically gifted and all of that,” Eckstein said. “I think that as a hitter, he’s grown and he’s matured and he’s worked on his hitting position. He’s worked at maintaining that position and understanding the mindset that goes along with the hitting position.

“There are times when he’ll come back and he’ll critique himself and say, ‘You know, I need to do a better job at this, I need to do a better job at that,’ and he’ll make any adjustments. Quite frankly, 2 1/2 years ago, he did none of that and it was like ‘Mike, This is what we have to understand.’ “

To this point in the season, Morse seemingly has no weakness. He’s no longer susceptible inside, though Eckstein acknowledges there was a time you “could pitch to him,” and he hits left-handers (.304) almost as well as right-handers (.331). He’s hitting .353 in an 0-1 count and .267 when he has two strikes. Four of his 19 home runs have come in 1-2 counts, he’s hitting .337 with runners in scoring position, .338 with men on and .314 with the bases empty.

There’s hardly a scenario in which he doesn’t hit.

So, with seven weeks left, could he become the first National to win a batting title?

“Yeah,” Eckstein said after some thought. “He has the potential to, absolutely - but let’s revisit this in four weeks.”

Notes: Right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who made his first rehab start Sunday in recovery from Tommy John surgery, will pitch Friday. His second rehab start will be for an affiliate to be determined but will be either in Single-A Potomac or Double-A Harrisburg. Strasburg will throw a side session Tuesday in Washington, and a locale for his next start will be decided then.

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