Michael Morse’s breakout season continues with homer to beat Marlins

MIAMI - The most stunning thing about Michael Morse’s breakout 2011 season is just how closely it’s followed a linear progression of what he did last season. When Morse was coming off the Nationals’ bench, launching enough home runs to make fans clamor for him to be in the starting lineup, it was tempting to take his numbers in roughly half a season, double them and come up with a nice, clean projection of what he could do in a full year.

But surely that couldn’t work. At some point, Morse was bound to get waylaid by pitchers armed with enough information about how to get him out. Slumps were going to happen. It was too easy a calculation, too hopeful a projection, to double the numbers and expect Morse to deliver.

Morse went through his slump in the first month of the season, hitting so poorly that he slipped back into a platoon role in left field. But he’s here at the end of the year, and not only has he doubled his numbers from last season, he’s surpassed even those calculations.

Davey Johnson talks with the media about the Nationals’ 6-4 win over the Marlins

His 30th homer of the season - a screamer to the upper deck at Sun Life Stadium - came with the Nationals two strikes away from guaranteeing themselves a losing record. Instead, Morse brought them back with a three-run homer, putting them on top of the Marlins 6-4 in the ninth inning. And when they held on to win by that score, they improved to 79-80, tied a franchise record with their ninth straight road win and kept their chances at a winning record alive.

“Everything that’s come up this season, for us, it’s big,” Morse said. “A lot of these guys wish there was another month left. We’re gelling together. We’re pushing forward. We’re showing teams we can turn this division around soon.”

If the Nationals are indeed on their way to doing that, Morse is a big reason why. He’s going to end the season leading the team in almost every major offensive category, and he has been serviceable in left field after filling in admirably for Adam LaRoche at first base. At age 29, he’s in the prime of his career, still two years from free agency and looking like one of the premier offensive players in the National League.

His homer, which came after he started the night 0-for-4, kept his batting average above .300. He’s got a .361 on-base percentage, and has a modest 124 strikeouts for a slugger.

“I played with Mike a little bit in Triple-A in 2009. He’s been hungry,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He was out to prove to people he could play in spring training. I don’t think there’s anybody happier for him than me. There’s a lot of heart right there. To get his 30th in a game like this, and a situation like that, it just speaks volumes to his character and the way he is.”

Before this season, Morse had never played more than 98 games in a season, and carried his oft-repeated refrain that all he needed was a shot.

His 2010 numbers suggested he deserved one: he hit 15 homers and drove in 41 runs in 266 at-bats, hitting .289/.352/.519 while coming off the bench and finally getting consistent work toward the end of the season. Double those numbers to get roughly a full season’s worth of at-bats, and Morse would have 30 homers and 82 RBIs.

But what he’s actually done has exceeded those projections. He’s hitting .303/.361/.546, and has driven in 94 runs in 518 at-bats. Morse has 36 doubles, is tied for the team lead with 72 runs and has grounded into just nine double plays. He’s become a remarkably efficient power hitter who can drive the ball to all fields, and he’s more than made up for the chasm Adam Dunn’s departure left in the middle of the lineup.

As it turned out, all he needed was a shot.

“He’s had a phenomenal year,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He leads our club in almost every offensive category. He’s played good defense at left and at first, and hit cleanup. How much better can it get than that?”