Nats' Murphy exceeding expectations and flirting with .400

WASHINGTON (AP) A player batting almost .400 is the driving force behind the Washington Nationals' offense. And his name isn't Bryce Harper.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy is the guy swinging the hot bat. He has picked up where he left off during the New York Mets' run to the World Series and taken his game to another level.

Murphy is hitting a major league-best .394 two months into the season and has nine home runs and 34 RBIs.

''He's been great all over,'' manager Dusty Baker said. ''He just keeps doing his thing, and we're going to help him keep doing his thing. We're glad we have him.''

Expectations were high for Murphy given his big October and $37.5 million, three-year contract with the Nationals. But few expected him to lead the majors with 78 hits this far into the season and be Washington's offensive catalyst.

Murphy on Thursday was selected NL player of the month. His 47 hits in May tied the franchise record for a month, a marked shared by Montreal's Al Oliver and Marquis Grissom.

That's some impressive company but nothing compared to wondering whether Murphy can be the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941.

''Right now, he's not thinking about hitting .400,'' Baker said. ''He's not thinking about anything other than the simplest form each at-bat, each inning at a time.''

Murphy, like a lot of superstitious baseball players, is reticent to talk about his hitting. The 31-year-old chalked up the hot start to ''good fortune'' and said he's having a blast because the Nationals are in first place and he's getting hits.

''They're falling right now,'' Murphy said. ''I'm in another good lineup, here in Washington. I'm swinging the bat well. We're all playing well right now, and I think we put ourselves in a really good spot.''

Murphy is a major reason for that, along with the pitching of undefeated Stephen Strasburg and hitting of catcher Wilson Ramos.

And while hitting .400 over the course of a full season is a daunting task even now, it's not so crazy to think that Murphy could win the NL batting title. He has a comfortable cushion, up 52 points up on Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.

Murphy has been in that kind of rarified air before. He was batting .320 in 2011 before a knee injury in August ended his season with fewer plate appearances than he needed to qualify for the title.

Mets manager Terry Collins remembers that well and said he's not shocked that Murphy is hitting like this.

''We always knew he was a really, really good hitter,'' Collins said. ''I've always thought that Dan Murphy could win a batting title. ... It's in him to do that. I'm excited that he's doing well.''

The Mets aren't so excited when facing Murphy, who spent his first six seasons in New York and was the team's hottest hitter in the 2015 postseason. Murphy had seven homers and 11 RBIs before cooling off in the World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

After leaving in free agency, Murphy has fit right in as the Nationals' cleanup hitter. Despite being on pace to shatter his career high in home runs, he's not a traditional power hitter in the No. 4 spot but does the job Baker needs.

''He wasn't my choice as the cleanup hitter from the beginning. He was my choice because of his performance and what other guys weren't doing with their performance,'' Baker said. ''Daniel Murphy can hit. In my mind he can hit second, third, fifth, six. There are a whole bunch of places for a guy like Daniel Murphy, and there are times I wish I could hit him in more than a couple spots.''

With Harper, Ramos, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth, there should be enough depth in the Nationals' lineup to survive even if Murphy falls off this pace. But right now, they're happy to let it ride.

''Murph has given me his best, plus some,'' Baker said. ''Instead of worrying about, `When is it going to stop,' it's just, `Give me some more, keep it going.'''

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AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker and AP Sports Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report.

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