Humbled Morse wants to use breakthrough as a baseline

Of the countless words used to describe Michael Morse’s breakthrough season in 2011 - and a .303 average, 31 homers and 95 RBIs will get you a lot of plaudits, not to mention Most Valuable Player votes - the most unexpected may been uttered by Morse himself.

“Last year, to me, was very humbling,” Morse said Thursday morning in the Nationals’ clubhouse. “It was something I always knew I could do. Now I feel like it’s the tip of the iceberg. I feel I have so much more to offer. Now I know what I’m able to do and I’m just going to work from that and get better.”

In the eyes of many, from scouts to fantasy baseball geeks to his teammates and coaches, Morse was primed for a breakout last year, if only based on how .298/15/41 totals from 98 games in 2010 would look extrapolated over a full season. He parlayed last season into a two-year, $10.5 million extension that bought out his final two years of arbitration and will keep him in Washington through 2013, the Nationals essentially telling him that he might be in line for a longer deal and bigger payday with a couple more productive seasons.

“You’re always looking for a benchmark,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “I think last year, (Morse was) given more opportunity to express his talent and there were some bumps in that road. He came out of spring as probably the hottest hitter in all of spring ... and got off to a little slow start and then started coming back and then got changed from first base to left field. But hitting .300, bombs, ribbies on a team that didn’t have a lot of run producers, I think he’s kind of established his benchmark.”

Morse has a different type of starting point in mind: He’s learned how to be a consistent hitter and needs to continue to work on his craft. He doesn’t want a repeat of last spring, when he tore up the Grapefruit League, started in left field for the Nationals and promptly struggled at the plate before being benched. Only a season-ending shoulder injury sustained by first baseman Adam LaRoche opened the door for Morse to reclaim a starting role and he sizzled from that point on.

Johnson has already penciled Morse in as his cleanup hitter, meaning last season’s positive impression has certainly stuck with the manager.

“He knows what he wants to do and he knows what he needs to do to be successful,” Johnson said of Morse. “He made, even more so than any hitter on the ballclub, adjustments when pitchers were pitching him in - more than any other hitters and I’m taking even (Jayson) Werth and (Ryan Zimmerman). It’s not like he’s just like a big ox that goes out there and takes his hacks.”

So what adjustments does Morse want to make for 2012? He wants to balance his aggressive approach at the plate by being a little more selective. When a situation calls for him to think about taking a walk instead of making an unproductive out, or suggests that he might need to move over a runner, Morse wants to keep a bigger-picture mentality, like Anaheim first baseman Albert Pujols.

“He knows so much what’s going on,” Morse said, marveling at Pujols’ approach. “Everything going on in the game dictates how he approaches his at-bats. That’s what I want to do this year and for the rest of my career. Now I feel like the league knows me a little more and I’m going to have to be who I am.”

Johnson is confident that Morse can do better, that his slugger won’t be satisfied with one good season. Morse said he only has to think about all the times he wondered whether his career would ever pan out if ever he needs some extra motivation.

“The biggest part of it is I always believed in myself, and that never went away,” Morse said. “I always thought that if I got an opportunity, I’m kicking the door in. I got an opportunity. ... I knew if I had a chance, I could do it.”

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