WASHINGTON -- Nationals left fielder Michael Morse was nicknamed "The Beast" for a good reason. He is Washington's best hitter in 2011.
The right-handed-hitting Morse hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs, leading the Nationals in all three categories.
That explains why he is the Nationals' candidate for the Hank Aaron award, a coveted honor that is awarded annually to the best overall offensive performer in both the American League and National League.
For the second straight year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.
This year, the Hall of Fame panel will include two new members -- personally selected by Aaron -- Roberto Alomar and Joe Morgan. They join panelists from last year, which included Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Robin Yount, forming a group comprised of some of the greatest offensive players of all-time. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 23,536 hits, 11,445 RBI and exactly 2,800 home runs -- have all agreed to join Aaron in lending their expertise to select the best offensive performers in each League.
Fans will have the opportunity to select one winner from each league from a list comprising one finalist per club through Sunday. The winners will be announced during the World Series.
"First, I like hitting with men on base," Morse said. "I feel I can contribute a lot to this team. It's being comfortable. I'm getting an opportunity to play."
There was a time this season when Morse wasn't getting a chance to play. He began the season as the Opening Day left fielder, but after a slow start and some health issues, manager Jim Riggleman decided to give Laynce Nix most of the playing time. By the beginning of May, Morse was getting starts only against left-handers, and that was sparingly.
Morse says he put too much pressure on himself to be the player that earned the left-field job during Spring Training. During the exhibition season, he led the team in home runs (nine) and RBIs (18).
"I think early this year, I was pressing," Morse said. "I was trying to get five hits in one at-bat. That never works. I felt in Spring Training that I was ready to play every day.
"When you have a good Spring Training like that, it's sometimes not a good idea, because right when the season starts, the numbers are reset. I never had an Opening Day start. I did put pressure on myself."
Morse's confidence was at an all-time low by early May. It was obvious to hitting coach Rick Eckstein that Morse was not the hitter he remembered from last year.
"As I watched him go through his at-bats, it wasn't the Mike Morse that I know," Eckstein said. "He would have a nice day here and there, but there was no consistency there. And then it kind of manifested itself to the point where I had a real good indication what he needed."
That was a stern lecture on hitting. One day after grounding out, Morse went into the dugout, his head down. He then went into the video room near the Nationals' dugout to see what he was doing wrong at the plate.
Eckstein followed Morse into the computer room. Eckstein was not happy that Morse didn't have a plan on what to do at the plate against the opposing pitcher. Eckstein said, "You are a good hitter. You are better than [the opposing pitcher]. Until you believe in yourself, nobody is going to believe in you."
"You could see in the way he said it, that he really meant it," Morse said about Eckstein's talk. "The way he was looking at me in the eye, I just told myself, 'I'm better than this. I'm better than this groundout.' I started taking the at-bats more seriously. I told myself, 'Don't waste at-bats.' He made me believe in myself."
As it turned out, Morse listened to every word Eckstein said. Morse would be back on the field on a regular basis by late May, at first base after Adam LaRoche was put on the disabled list because of a serious shoulder injury. Morse took advantage of the situation and found himself as the team's leading hitter.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.