- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. | Michael Morse, the fourth player in Washington Nationals history to hit 30 home runs in a season, was sitting inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Sun Life Stadium on Tuesday afternoon when Livan Hernandez walked over and handed him a gift-wrapped bottle of Cristal.

Even the 16-year veteran could appreciate the season Morse (.303, 30 HR, 94 RBI) has had. From bench player to cleanup hitter in less than a year.

But other than possibly enjoying the pricey celebratory beverage, Morse doesn’t plan to do anything differently this offseason. For the first time in his career, he’ll be going to spring training with an established job and spot in the lineup.

“Nothing has changed,” Morse said. “This game has humbled me 10 times over - but that’s the way I like it.”

As he reflects on the season, Morse said it’s “by far the most fun year” he’s had in the big leagues and, like the rest of his teammates, is excitedly looking to 2012.

“[It was] stressful, of course,” he said. “But I’ve definitely had fun. Just being in the lineup everyday was my biggest accomplishment. I kept telling myself, ‘Go out and get three hits today. But if you don’t, guess what: You’ll be in there tomorrow.’ That would always put a smile on my face.”

When the season ends Wednesday, Morse will be just the franchise’s second team Triple Crown hitter in the past 19 seasons. Vladimir Guerrero did it for the Montreal Expos in 2002.

Entering Tuesday night’s game, Morse’s .303 average and .546 slugging percentage rank ninth and fifth in the National League, respectively. His 30 home runs lead rookie Danny Espinosa by nine, and his 94 RBI top Espinosa by 28.

“Hitting .300 with 30 home runs and driving in 90-some runs for a club that doesn’t score a lot of runs is outstanding,” said manager Davey Johnson.

“[The rest of the league] has tried to get a good book on him. Let me tell you, everybody studies every club - and everybody really studies your three- and four-hole hitters. He’s been able to handle everything they’ve thrown at him, and he’s been our most effective offensive player. He’s my four-hole hitter. I think that says it all.”

Morse has maintained that he’s still the same guy he was when he struggled through April, hitting .211 and slugging just .268, but even he concedes that he’s learned much this season. Pitchers who were trying to exploit his weaknesses - like working him inside and finding a hole in his swing - have been disappointed as Morse continues to adjust.

“I think this year made me know my swing more, know my strike zone more, know how guys pitch to me a little more,” Morse said. “Overall just knowing the game.”

His power has been what made headlines, but it’s his consistency that has been the most impressive.

Morse hit .403 in May, .299 in June, .344 in July and .333 in August. In September it’s fallen to .236, but he’s also averaged more than five home runs per month and already had six in September with two games left.

He’s enjoyed his success after toiling in the minor leagues or wasting away on the bench. But even he is leery of lauding himself too much. It’s been a good season, and he’ll leave it at that.

“I feel like I tried to help the team as much as I could,” he said.

The next goal is to win.

“There will be [a different vibe in spring training next year],” he said. “We’re going to be looking to trying to win. … We’ve got the talent. Now we’ve just got to get on the same page.”

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