- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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

Even Hernandez, a 16-year major league veteran, could appreciate the season Morse has put together. From bench player to cleanup hitter in less than a year.

Now, on top of taking home a potential .300 average to go along with at least 30 homers, he was bringing a very expensive celebratory cocktail. But other than possibly enjoying the drink, Morse doesn’t plan to do anything differently this offseason, he said, despite the fact that for the first time in his career he’ll be coming 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 Nationals 2011 season Morse admits it’s “by far the most fun year,” he’s ever had in the big leagues and, like the rest of his teammates, is looking toward 2012 with an excitement in his tone.

“(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 evening, Morse will be just the franchise’s second Triple Crown winner in the last 19 seasons. Vladimir Guerrero, who did it for the Expos in 2002, is the only other hitter to accomplish the organizational feat in that period.

Entering Tuesday night’s game, Morse’s .303 batting average and .546 slugging percentage rank ninth and fifth in the National League, respectively. His 30 home runs and 94 RBI lead the Nationals by an almost unbelievable margin. In second place is Danny Espinosa with 21 home runs and nearly 30 fewer RBI at 66.

“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 Nationals 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 admits that he’s learned a lot this season. Teams and pitchers who were trying to exploit his weaknesses before — like pitching him inside and finding a hole in his swing — have been sorely disappointed this season as Morse has continued 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 the thing grabbing headlines —after all, only 20 players in all of the major leagues have broken the 30-homer mark this season — but it’s his consistency that has been the most impressive.

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

He’s enjoyed his success, and rightfully so after so many years 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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