Associated Press photo
Adam LaRoche drove in four of the Nationals' five runs Wednesday night.
"It's tough to say when you're struggling," LaRoche said. "Obviously the last few games have been a little difficult. But I do know having big guys behind you, I've been in that situation a lot, and it helps. It's nice."
Did the sight of Morse standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning cause Mets rookie Jeremy Hefner to hang a first-pitch curveball to LaRoche, a pitch the veteran pounced on and sent flying over the right-field fence for the three-run homer that set the Nationals on their way to a 5-3 victory?
The world may never know. But if LaRoche believes it made a difference, does it really matter if it's true or not?
"With him being back, it totally changes that pitchers' meeting to start a series," he said. "Now you've got one more big bat they've got to spend some time talking about, and figure out a way to get him out. And it helps other guys around him. The fact that I'm hitting in front of him now, I'm probably going to see some better pitches, because they know what's coming up."
LaRoche hadn't exactly been inspiring fear in opposing pitchers over the last three weeks after a brilliant start to the season. Owner of a .336 batting average and 1.024 OPS on May 17, he had seen those number plummet to .267 and .849 during a 6-for-55 skid.
With one mighty swing early in Wednesday's game, though, the 32-year-old might well have put that slump to bed for good. He certainly didn't let up as the evening progressed, singling up the middle in the fifth and then delivering a sacrifice fly in the seventh for his fourth RBI of the game.
Throw in Morse's two hits and first RBI of the season, and the heart of the Nationals' lineup wound up with one of its most productive performances of the year.
"Oh! I mean, it's a whole new ballgame," manager Davey Johnson said, barely able to restrain himself. "Michael Morse is warming up, and there's not going to be much let-up in that middle of the lineup. The first two guys are going to get on, and then the thunder's coming. I've been waiting on it."
The entire Nationals organization had been waiting three months to get Morse back in the lineup. Sidelined since spring training with a torn lat muscle, the man who led last season's roster in nearly every offensive category looked a bit overanxious during his first two games off the disabled list over the weekend.
But after an 0-for-9 delayed start to his 2012, Morse is beginning to discover his groove. He's now got four hits over his last seven at-bats, with a pair of walks thrown in for good measure.
Even more encouraging: All four of Morse's hits have been to the opposite field.
"I liked his patience tonight," Johnson said. "That shows me he's zeroing in."
The thunder from the middle of the Nationals' lineup put the home club ahead early in this game, and the quality pitching of Edwin Jackson, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard ensured a second straight victory over a Mets team that came to town on its own hot streak.
Jackson had dominant stuff, allowing only two singles and a double over seven innings. He did inflict a few wounds on himself via four walks and a costly error on a pickoff attempt. But ultimately he surrendered only two earned runs for his seventh quality start in 10 tries, and he was rewarded for his efforts for a change, earning only his second win despite 3.11 ERA over 11 starts.
The unusual stat line -- not to mention the presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann ahead of him in the lineup -- leaves Jackson outside the spotlight at times. His teammates, though, understand what he's meant to the club this season.
"He's like the silent assassin, you could say, of the pitching staff," Morse said. "Edwin always comes out and puts up solid starts. Sometimes it's good to be behind guys like that."
It also helps when your bullpen can close out games in relatively easy fashion as the Nationals did Wednesday. Burnett retired the side in the eighth. Clippard then overcame a leadoff walk to pitch a scoreless ninth and earn his fifth save in as many tries since becoming his team's pseudo-closer.
Actually, Clippard appears to be the Nationals' actual closer for now, used in every save opportunity over the last two weeks and even used on Wednesday against a Mets lineup that had five consecutive left-handed hitters due up in the ninth.
"I've changed enough roles in the bullpen," Johnson said, all but declaring Clippard his ninth-inning guy until Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery around the All-Star break. "From long guys setting up, set-up guys closing, I don't like to keep reverting back and have them guessing out there what their role is going to be."