Morse leads Nats lineup back to life in win

Morse leads Nats lineup back to life in win
April 24, 2011, 8:59 pm
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Sunday, April 24, 2011 4:59 p.m.
Updated at 6:39 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
CSNwashington.com

PITTSBURGH -- They may insist they pay no attention to such things, but members of the Nationals' lineup can't help but notice how abysmal their offensive numbers are right now.

Only two of Jim Riggleman's starting nine Sunday against the Pirates boasted batting averages better than .225: Leadoff man Danny Espinosa and pitcher Jason Marquis, who was hitting a robust .286. Three starters were sitting below the Mendoza line. Four sported on-base percentages below .300.

"You look at the averages right now, and it's not real good," cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche said.

Perhaps the Nationals began to dig themselves out of their season-long funk Sunday afternoon in pounding out 15 hits en route to a 6-3 victory. Certainly, LaRoche (2-for-5, homer) and Michael Morse (3-for-4, three-run homer) had to feel good about their performances.

This lineup may not be loaded with thumpers who can be counted on to produce every single night. But there's certainly more offensive talent wearing curly W jerseys right now than has been put on display.

"It's nice to put a few hits together today," LaRoche said. "That's been few and far between. Our pitchers have been keeping us in there, but we haven't been able to get the big hit. So to have Mike come up with the big three-run home run and drive some runs in when we needed them, and to keep adding on to it, was a good sign."

The amazing thing is, even with the team hitting a collective .226, even with Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list, even with Jayson Werth hitting an even .200 with only five RBI through 20 games, the Nationals own a .500 record at this moment.

Thanks to consistent performances from its pitching staff -- which continued Sunday from Jason Marquis, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen -- Washington has managed to score just enough runs to keep its head above water.

That, more than anything, leaves the folks inside that clubhouse feeling optimistic about their long-term chances.

"We just need to do what we did today: Scratch out some wins while we're not at the top of our game," Riggleman said. "Because when we get at the top of our game, the way we've pitched, we've got a chance to be pretty good."

It took a big-time hit from a suddenly resurgent Morse to produce Sunday's win at soggy PNC Park. The left fielder, getting his first crack at everyday play at age 29, was hitting .133 with zero extra-base hits 10 days ago. Since then, he has found his groove, with 10 hits (and five RBI) over his last 24 at-bats, raising his average to a respectable .259.

Morse couldn't have picked a more opportune moment to crush his first homer of the season Sunday, sending a third-inning fastball from Pirates starter Kevin Correia into the left-field bullpen after Werth and LaRoche had just made outs with runners in scoring position.

"That's what we've been waiting for," Riggleman said. "When Mike's on top of his game, he hits for extra-base hits, and he really got a very timely one there. We were kind of passing up some opportunities, and he got us a big one."

Riggleman stuck with Morse through his early struggles, keeping him in the lineup for 18 of the Nationals' first 20 games. That might serve as a confidence boost for some, but Morse insists he doesn't need any extra support from his manager.

"That's one thing I won't lose: confidence for myself," he said.

The Nationals desperately need both Morse and LaRoche (who entered Sunday hitting .213 but led off the fifth with a solo homer to right) to produce, especially with Zimmerman still shelved (he was eligible to return from the DL Sunday but likely needs at least another week) and Werth laboring.

The latter's struggles is becoming a bit of an concern. The man who was handed a 126 million contract in December is now hitting .200 with only five RBI. On Sunday, he went 0-for-5 without hitting the ball out of the infield.

Werth has talked about some mechanical adjustments he's attempting to make, with help from hitting coach Rick Eckstein. So far, the Nationals haven't seen positive results, though few believe the right fielder is going to maintain such abysmal numbers for the entire season.

If nothing else, Werth is still contributing to his team's success in other areas. His on-the-fly, laser throw to the plate in the bottom of the ninth nailed a tagging Andrew McCutchen to seal Sunday's victory.

Werth was pretty fired up about the play, bumping shoulders with center fielder Rick Ankiel in celebration. Hey, if you're not contributing at the plate, might as well contribute in the field.

"That's what I told him after the game: That's why you keep playing," Riggleman said. "He played the whole game through. He didn't get any hits, but he made the final play of the game to get us home with the win."

The Nationals, though, aren't paying Werth 126 million just to make nice throws from right field. Eventually, they need him to hit. Just like they need LaRoche to hit. Just like they need Morse to hit. Just like they need Ankiel and Ian Desmond and insert player's name to hit.

And if they could get those guys to start producing in the next week or so, it will only make Zimmerman's return to the lineup all the more significant.

"We've got to give Ryan a little time to get the rust off, too," Riggleman said. "But we've got a lot of good players. We're going to win our share of games. When we're hitting on all cylinders, we're going to do fine. But we've got to win games when we're not hitting on all cylinders."

Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at mzuckerman@comcastsportsnet.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.