Nationals’ Morse: 2011 was ‘tip of the iceberg’

VIERA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Morse often wondered if he would ever get the chance to show people the kind of baseball player he always thought he could be.

The confident Washington Nationals left fielder said Thursday he never doubted himself.

“That never went away,” Morse said of his confidence. “I always just thought, if I get an opportunity, I’m kicking the door in.”

He did.

Morse is coming off a breakout season, where he hit .303 with 31 home runs, 95 RBI and had an on-base percentage of .360. He was rewarded with a two-year, $10.5 million contract extension and has some good news for Nationals’ fans.

“Last year to me was very humbling,” Morse said. “It was something that I always knew I could do, but now I feel like it’s the tip of the iceberg. I feel like I have so much more to offer. Now I know what I’m able to do.

“I’m just going to work from that and get better.”

Morse is targeting his on-base percentage and being more consistent, among other things. Though he wants to maintain his aggressiveness at the plate, he wants to improve his pitch selection to improve his walk total while reducing his strikeouts.

“I want to see him stay in the areas he’s looking, and stay in the strike zone (and play) to his strengths,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “At times, he did chase (pitches) out of the zones and he would get himself out. But Mike has done a nice job.

“One of the biggest things is that he really started believing in himself. Hopefully, we can pick up from where we left off last year and continue to roll.”

After a year like he had, Morse knows he is expected to only get better, not to regress, and he’s on board with that. If anything, what he has been through has made him the player he is today — someone who appreciates success more because it hardly came instantly.

Originally drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2000, Morse was traded to the Seattle Mariners 2004 where he made it to the big leagues as a shortstop. Injuries and a lack of opportunities derailed his chances in Seattle and he was eventually traded to the Nationals in 2009 where he became a part-time player.

That all changed in spring training last season when he led the Grapefruit League with nine home runs and earned the starting left field job (he would eventually move to first base when Adam LaRoche was lost for the season) and a chance to finally play every day.

Even then, it wasn’t easy as he hit just .224 with one home run in April and was benched in May. Morse admitted he was trying to do too much and decided to take it at-bat by at-bat. When LaRoche got hurt, he was given another chance, and this time, he kicked in that door.

“It was awesome,” Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel said. “Anytime you see a guy have a career year like he did, especially the route that he took and as long as it took him to get there, it’s special.

“It’s something you can enjoy with him as a teammate because you understand what they’re going through and how exciting it is for them. It’s pretty cool.”

For the first time in his career, Morse has come to spring training not worried about whether he will finally get that big break. Manager Davey Johnson said Thursday that Morse will be his cleanup hitter this season.

The experience of last season has only made him more eager and hungry to be even better in 2012. The Nationals would certainly love to see that.

“You watch his swing and how the ball comes off the bat . there’ s not that many people that can make that sound when the ball comes off the bat the way it does when it comes off of his,” Ankiel said. “It’s going to be fun to watch.”

Notes: Pitcher Chien-Ming Wang’s group threw a 10-minute bullpen session Thursday, but Wang did not participate. The right-hander is being given two days off in between throwing sessions as he enters his first spring training since 2009 where his surgically repaired right shoulder is healthy. Johnson said it’s likely Wang’s first spring training start will come in a simulated, or controlled game. The move is just a precaution . Closer Drew Storen had an interesting bullpen session. While most pitchers take it nice and easy, Storen could be seen getting upset with himself when he didn’t make the pitch the way he wanted to. Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty kept telling Storen to slow it down . The line of the day came from Johnson when discussing new pitcher Gio Gonzalez. “He looks fairly normal . for a left-hander,” Johnson said.