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Nationals' beastly slugger Morse heads All-Underrated team

The 2011 season's least heralded breakout star precedes each at bat by walking onto the dirt that surrounds home plate and stopping just before entering the righthanded batter's box. He purses his lips, lifts his left leg up and back like a starting pitcher and rotates his torso and shoulders forward as if mimicking the first half of his swing in slow-motion.

The Nationals' Michael Morse explains that this seemingly unnatural contortion serves a dual purpose as an at-bat ritual. The overexaggerated stretch is a remnant of exercises he learned to alleviate tightness he experienced earlier this season in his hips, and the act of winding up into a spring of potential energy helps him visualize his murderous swing.

"Like when a cobra's about to strike, he coils up before he strikes," Morse said Tuesday.

Morse, the MVP of SI.com's All-Underrated Team, has become a 6'5", 230-pound predator in a baseball uniform. He leads Washington in batting average (.317, home runs (21), doubles (30), slugging percentage (.550) and OPS (.923) and has been baseball's most productive first baseman since replacing Adam LaRoche, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in May, in the lineup. At the game's most star-studded position, Morse leads all his counterparts -- from Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira in the American League to Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto in the National League -- with a 1.016 OPS while playing first.

Morse, 29, has slugged the club's six longest home runs this season, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, including two this month of special note. His 466-foot bomb to Wrigley's deep centerfield ranks as one of the top-10 longest home runs in the majors this year, and a 455-foot jack at Nationals Park -- to the upper-deck of the opposite-field -- demonstrated his brute force to all fields.

The gift that Washington shortstop Ian Desmond handed Morse earlier this season -- a t-shirt with "Beast Mode" screen-printed across the chest -- thus seems fitting in hindsight. Morse began wearing it everyday before games. "That was me," he said, "I turned into the Beast."

Indeed, Morse's baseball story could be a Disney tale for his having overcome a troubled start, though the plotline is reversed: morphing into the Beast is his happily ever after.

But where did all of this come from? Morse, who split his early childhood between his mother's house in South Florida and his grandparents' house in Jamaica, starred as a big-framed high school shortstop shortly after Alex Rodriguez, who hailed from nearby, had made the hulking shortstop en vogue. The White Sox drafted Morse in the third round in 2000 then traded him four years later to the Mariners as part of the package for Freddy Garcia.

Morse reached the majors at shortstop in 2005 and batted .395 in his first 24 games in Seattle but finished the year at a .221 clip over the next 48 games. Thanks to a series of injuries (most prominently a torn meniscus in 2006 and a torn shoulder labrum in 2008), position changes (to the corner outfield and first base) and a few more missed opportunities, Morse didn't have 50 major-league at bats in a season again until he was traded to the Nationals for outfielder Ryan Langherhans in 2009.

Morse finished the 2010 season as Washington's rightfielder and did so with a flourish. He ended up with 15 homers, a .289 average, a .352 on-base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage. For the first time he seemed poised to make the Opening Day roster as an everyday player.

And then, for $126 million, the Nationals signed Jayson Werth to play rightfield.

"I was like, 'What do I have to do?'" Morse recalled. "I was mind-boggled."

He opened the year in a leftfield platoon with the lefty-swinging Laynce Nix, a part-time gig Morse had effectively lost by the first two weeks of May when he was primarily relegated to pinch-hitting. Then the injury to LaRoche created an opportunity for playing time.

Morse thanked hitting coach Rick Eckstein for his help but noted that the biggest change has simply been the assurance of being in the lineup everyday, which allows players more opportunities to get on hot streaks and break out of slumps.

"I always knew I could hit," he said. "I haven't changed anything. I'm the same person I was and always have been. I'm getting the opportunity to play every day. No matter what you do today, you know you're going to be in there tomorrow. If you don't get them today, you know you're going to get them tomorrow. That's the kind of mentality you can have, which takes a lot of pressure off of you and just brings out the talent."

So it should come as no surprise that Morse's season turned around as soon as he became entrenched in the Nationals' everyday lineup. Manager Davey Johnson has suggested that Morse might return to leftfield next year when LaRoche is healthy but has assured Morse that he'll be in the lineup somehow, some way.

Should he keep up this pace for the next few years, Morse will be a marketer's dream, a man whose personality matches his prodigious power. With little urging he sang A-Ha's "Take on Me" in an appearance on MLB Network's "Intentional Talk" show. He gives himself a celebratory slap on the helmet during home-run trots. And he comes replete with his own slogans, starting with "Beast Mode" but now moving into a new phase of the season -- and thus a new t-shirt -- that he has taken to calling "Hammer Time" because, as the season winds down over the next six weeks, "now it's time to hammer it down."

As the baseball calendar moves into the stretch run, SI.com unveils its All-Underrated Team. The only strict requirements are that a player couldn't have made this year's All-Star team or appeared on a top prospect list the past two years, but there must also be an (inherently subjective) underappreciation of the player's talents.

Catcher: Chris Iannetta, Rockies

Players with a .238 average typically get little attention, but Iannetta has hit with power (16 doubles and 12 homers) in his 298 at bats and has the best walk rate of all major league catchers, drawing a free pass for every 5.763 plate appearances. His .375 on-base percentage is second among catchers behind only Detroit's Alex Avila, and Iannetta's secondary average -- a Bill James-created metric to compare a player's production beyond batting average in a ratio deriving from extra-base hits, walks and steals over at bats -- ranks 10th among all hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, regardless of position.

First base: Michael Morse, Nationals

(See above.)

Second base: Ben Zobrist, Rays

Zobrist is, admittedly, not a full-time second baseman -- he has started 88 games there as well as 33 more in rightfield -- which probably helps explain why he's rarely mentioned alongside Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler as one of the AL's elite at the position. But "Zorilla" is showing that his All-Star 2009 season wasn't a fluke. He leads the majors in doubles (42) while also hitting 15 homers and stealing 15 bases. Additionally, he's the Rays' leader in walks (66), slugging (.499) and OPS (.874) and ranks second on the team in average (.287) and OBP (.375). Defensively, Zobrist ranks first in the majors at second base via Plus/Minus while rating above-average in right.

Third base: Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks

Entering this season the 30-year-old Roberts was a utility player with just 398 career at bats and 10 home runs. He wasn't going to make the Diamondbacks' Opening Day roster until a spring training injury to Geoff Blum opened a roster spot. This season, however, Roberts has found a home at third, where he's started 77 games while still maintaining some versatility with 22 starts at second and two starts in leftfield. And he's on pace for a 20-20-20 season; through Wednesday he has 20 doubles, 16 homers and 15 steals while putting together a .256/.349/.417 batting line.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles

Five shortstops have an OPS of at least .800 this season, and of those five -- the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, the Mets' Jose Reyes, the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta, the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera and Hardy -- only Hardy wasn't honored as an All-Star this year, in part because he missed 25 early-season games with an oblique injury. Hardy now paces AL shortstops in home runs (24) and slugging (.513) while primarily batting leadoff for the Orioles. He's not a player without faults -- he rates slightly below-average defensively and has an OBP of just .315 -- but has been among Baltimore's most productive offensive players, leading the club with an .828 OPS. That effort recently earned him a three-year contract extension

Outfield: Alex Gordon, Royals; Peter Bourjos, Angels; Cameron Maybin, Padres

With 17 outfielders honored as All-Stars, it may seem hard to find any player who fell through the cracks, but a few years later than expected Gordon has grown into the emerging star the Royals projected him to be when they made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft. After several injuries and a couple position changes, the 27-year-old Gordon is hitting his stride in leftfield, where he leads all major league outfielders with 19 assists. He is one of eight players having a 30-15-10 season (doubles-homers-steals) -- coincidentally, that numbers includes all three Royals' outfielders -- but what Gordon has provided that Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur have not is a keen eye at the plate, good for a .367 OBP and a team-leading .852 OPS.

Bourjos, meanwhile, has quickly developed a reputation for being one of the game's premier outfielders. The Angels thought so much of him that they moved perennial Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter to right so that Bourjos could man the middle. According to Plus/Minus, Bourjos has saved more runs than any other centerfielder in baseball. But he's on this list for his offense, which rarely gets any mention. Assistant general manager Ken Forsch said before the season that Bourjos projects long-term as a leadoff hitter with power, and so far the player has done nothing to dissuade anyone of that notion. Fresh off a streak of three straight games with at least three hits, Bourjos has put together a .285/.337/.451 batting line with eight homers and 17 steals. His .788 OPS ranks second on the team.

Maybin, like Gordon, is a once-touted prospect who had fallen from grace only to return to prominence this season. Now with his third organization, Maybin has improved his contact-rate with the bat to put together a .277/.334/.405 batting line with a team-leading 117 hits, 69 runs and 32 stolen bases. Combined with his stellar play in centerfield of spacious Petco Park, Maybin has a 4.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a number greater than more celebrated NL outfield counterparts Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Jay Bruce, Hunter Pence, Carlos Gonzalez and Andre Ethier, among others.

Starting Pitchers: Johnny Cueto, Reds; Justin Masterson, Indians; Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Jeff Karstens, Pirates

It's hard to imagine the majors' ERA leader flying under the radar but the Reds' Cueto didn't make his season debut until May 8 due to injury and has been pitching for a team that has been slowly sinking out of the playoff picture since mid-June. But Cueto has allowed more than three earned runs in only one of his 20 starts and has a 2.02 ERA over 133 1/3 innings, giving him a shot at joining Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Kevin Brown as only the fifth starter with a sub-2.00 ERA since 1990.

Masterson still has a little bit of difficulty in getting out lefties (.275 average and .691 OPS against) but is so dominant against righties (.204 average and .539 OPS) and so effective at getting groundballs (67.7 percent) that he has become the Indians' ace -- even with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez. Masterson ranks fifth in the AL in ERA (2.83), which is nearly a two-run reduction over last season's 4.70, and eighth in innings pitched (181 1/3). He has failed to go at least six innings in only three of his 26 starts that haven't been shortened by rain

Kuroda's curse, meanwhile, has been poor run support. He's just 9-14 despite a 2.88 ERA. In his 14 losses the Dodgers have scored just 20 runs -- and never more than three -- with him on the mound. His nine wins are the fewest among the 16 pitchers who have made more than 20 starts with an ERA under 3.00.

Zimmermann will be in Stephen Strasburg's shadow as long as the two are teammates on the Nationals, but the former's star has shone brightly this season. Zimmermann is only 8-11 due to poor run support, but his ERA is 3.10 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is exemplary, a 3.93 K/BB that ranks ninth in the majors. Zimmermann's 16 quality starts lead Washington's rotation, as does his .291 OBP against.

Karstens, who began the year in the bullpen, has been the top performer on the Pirates' surprise starting staff, thanks to a low walk rate of 1.7 per nine innings. While rotation-mate Charlie Morton has gotten more attention for his turnaround from a 2-12 season in 2010 and for his mimicry of Roy Halladay, Karstens has been statistically superior this year, with a 3.09 ERA over 148 1/3 innings with a 1.15 WHIP. His groundball-to-flyball ratio has improved by more than a tenth for the second straight year to a career-high 0.87.

Relief pitchers: John Axford, Brewers; Kyle Farnsworth, Rays

Axford is the free spirit whose Twitter account contains a self-description of "mustache aficionado," a recurring gag of a #staching hash tag and such interjections as "stachetastic," so perhaps it's only fitting that the Brewers closer is doing a fine impersonation of mustachioed star closers like Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Since blowing two of his first five save opportunities, Axford has been perfect in his next 34 with a 1.53 ERA. Even after Milwaukee acquired former Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, Axford has successfully staved off competition for save opportunities. Perfection will do that for you.

Only three closers this year have at least 20 saves while maintaining an ERA under 2.00. They are NL All-Stars Joel Hanrahan and Craig Kimbrel . . . and Farnsworth, the unexpectedly efficient Tampa Bay closer. With 22 saves (in 26 chances), he has set a career-high in his 13th season, as he has walked only eight to go along with a paltry 1.93 ERA and .193 average against; he retired 23 batters in a row until Tuesday, breaking the second-longest streak by an AL reliever this season. His 5.13 K/BB ratio ranks third in the league behind only Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.

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