Veteran sluggers Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez have had success hitting in the middle of the order.
Getting a cheap laugh out of Michael Morse simply requires suggesting that batting in the middle of the order is no tougher than any other spot.
“Oh, yeah, sure it isn’t,” Morse said with a chuckle, shaking his head slowly. “It’s real easy.”
The Mariners always envisioned Morse as a future middle-of-the-order type. But it wasn’t until after a trade to the Washington Nationals in 2009 that he finally was thrust into that spot full-time, then proved he could handle it.
That demonstrated ability is what convinced general manager Jack Zduriencik to reacquire the hitter he’d traded four years earlier, hoping Morse can anchor a mid-order revival for Seattle not seen since before Edgar Martinez retired. When Zduriencik and others discuss middle-of-the-order hitters, they really mean spots 3, 4 and 5, in the “heart” of any lineup, though teams generally want power in the No. 6 position, as well.
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Besides Morse, 31, who hit 31 home runs for the Nationals in 2011, then 18 more in an injury-shortened campaign last year, the team also acquired Kendrys Morales, 29, in a trade with the Angels. Morales is a onetime 34-homer slugger who just returned last year after missing most of the past two seasons recovering from a severe ankle fracture.
That duo is expected to handle the bulk of duties in the Nos. 3 and 4 lineup spots, taking the pressure off younger hitters by bumping them further back in the order. The Mariners have also brought in veteran Raul Ibanez, who hit 18 home runs for the Yankees last season, to use in a more part-time role, primarily against right-handed pitching, and handle any mid-order duties if the need arises.
All kidding aside, Morse says there’s a big difference hitting in the middle of the order compared to other places.
“You have to really be able to hit all different kinds of pitches,” Morse said. “You don’t necessarily get just fastballs. You don’t necessarily get strikes. You have to be patient and be able to hit a slider, or a curveball or changeup.”
Morse said it wasn’t until going to play winter ball in Venezuela that he learned how to hit off-speed pitches. If you can’t do that, he added, then you can’t survive in the middle of the order.
“I think that helped me,” he said.
Morales, who debuted in 2006 with the Angels, feels there’s a confidence level required to stay in the middle of the lineup. He had only sporadic work in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots at first. Even in his breakout season in 2009 he was primarily in the Nos. 5 through 7 slots.
It wasn’t until the year after that 34-homer campaign that the Angels finally made him a full-time, mid-order hitter.
“I’ve been doing it for many years now, knowing it’s a responsibility to hit in the middle of the lineup,” Morales said. “And obviously, from watching other veterans and learning, I’ve taken that on and that’s given me additional responsibility too that I take very seriously.”
Morales said after gaining big-league experience and confidence, he wasn’t afraid of how pitchers might work him in the middle of the order.
“That’s what enabled me to continue hitting with confidence in the middle of the lineup,” he said.
Ibanez said a good middle of the order makes the entire lineup better.
“Of course,” he said. “It impacts the rest of the lineup and it impacts the opposing pitcher. It puts a lot of pressure on the opposing pitcher to know there’s a big block of hitters that he has to make pitches to.
“And it helps the rest of the lineup because a pitcher will sometimes get up for the middle guys and it can be mentally draining. He might ease up a bit and that’s when the rest of the lineup gets in on it and gets it done.”
Zduriencik said true mid-order hitters have three traits: a proven track record, the ability to hit the ball out of the park and to drive in runs.
The Mariners gave 311 plate appearances to rookie Jesus Montero in the clean-up spot last season. Kyle Seager had 301 plate appearances in the No. 3 slot in his first full big-league season. Justin Smoak had 297 plate appearances in spots No. 4 and 5 despite major struggles.
Having Morse and Morales to handle that load could take pressure off young hitters.
“When you hit in the middle of the order, it’s a mentality, a mindset,” said outfielder Michael Saunders, who has hit in the middle of the lineup sporadically. “The guys we’ve brought in here, they’ve been doing it for years in the middle of the order. They know how to handle the pressure and handle the expectations.”