Lupica: Murphy’s awe — Sky’s the limit

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It is October of 2015, two weeks of October baseball when everything changed for Daniel Murphy, when it was as if he got hit by lightning and couldn’t or wouldn’t stop hitting home runs, first against the Dodgers and then against the Cubs. Now Murphy has gone deep again, Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, at Wrigley, off Kyle Hendricks, to dead center, breaking a 1-1 tie in the third inning.

So the game is over and Murphy has finished talking about the rip he is on and he is finally back at his hotel in Chicago. His wife, Tori (short for Victoria), is waiting for him, their son asleep in the next room. And in this moment, what is happening to him and to them with these home runs seems to hit them both. Except there are no words to properly describe it, or explain it. So Daniel Murphy smiles at his wife and she smiles at him, before he puts his hands out, palms up, a gesture of helplessness. Michael Jordan did it one time in this same city, in the 1992 NBA Finals, when he couldn’t miss.

“I don’t know,” Murphy says to her, before embracing his wife, the way he was embracing the baseball moment at the time, the one that made him a baseball star, and would ultimately make him fairly rich with the free-agent contract he would sign with the Nationals after the season. 

Daniel Murphy was 30 that October. Had been with the Mets for a while, going quietly about his business, having no idea things would eventually get as loud for him as they did. Then, with the help of the Mets’ hitting coaches, Kevin Long and Pat Roessler, Murphy changed his approach at the plate, essentially made the kind of swing change that professional golfers sometimes make in the middle of their own career. By the time he got to October of ’15, what became his time, everything fell into place for him, even if the Mets ended up losing the World Series to the Royals.

“That whole run was a blessing,” he is saying now, at a table on the outdoor patio behind the Nationals’ dining room. It is 8 a.m. and five hours later, the Nationals and the Astros will open The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which they share, with a game against each other.

“It wasn’t just me personally,” Murphy is saying, “it was this whole great group of guys going on that kind of ride together.” He grins and says, “And I was hitting a home run every night.”

He did that. Did he ever. Murphy hit home runs in Games 1, 4 and 5 against the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Then he homered in every game of the Mets’ sweep against the Cubs in the NLCS. He hit .529 in that series. His slugging percentage was merely 1.294. And, oh by the way? When Murph got back to the postseason with the Nationals, in the next baseball October, all he did was hit .438 in five games against the Dodgers, seven hits in those five games to go with five walks. All he had done for the Nats in the regular season, hitting behind Bryce Harper even when Harper wasn’t hitting so much, was put up a .347 batting average, 25 home runs, 104 RBIs, and spend a lot of his time looking like what Harper had been the year before: NL MVP Award winner.

On this brilliant Spring Training morning, hours before the big ballpark opening on Haverhill Road, I ask Murphy to once again explain the change in swing and philosophy that changed him from essentially being a career singles hitter into, well, this.

Murph grins again and says, “Get the ball in the air.”

Then he is talking about Long becoming the Mets’ hitting coach in 2015, how he convinced Murphy that he simply wasn’t attacking the ball enough, wasn’t getting the most out of his power, even though he had once hit .320 in the big leagues. Before 2015, the most home runs he had hit in a season was 13. Even in ’15, he had hit just 14 home runs during the regular season, as he was learning to trust the new approach and the new swing. Then he hauled off and hit half as many home runs in October as he’d hit all season long.

“What they really taught me,” Murphy says, “was the best way for me to maximize my talents and be dangerous.”

He says: “I was getting chewed up and spit out early in the season. But they convinced me to stay with the changes. And I did, even when I was struggling early. What was really happening was that a foundation was being laid. And then all of a sudden it wasn’t just the balls I was hitting hard that were hits. It was the balls I wasn’t hitting hard, too.”

By the time Murphy got to the NLDS and NLCS, he was hitting everything hard. The Mets’ second baseman — it’s always worth remembering Murph is a second baseman — wasn’t merely dangerous by then. He had become the most dangerous hitter still playing. He ended up signing with the Nationals for three seasons and slightly north of $37 million. He had gone from one end of a pretty fierce Acela Express rivalry in the NL East to another. But you have to say that the swing change had paid off for him, in all ways.

“Sometimes it comes down to a willingness to say, ‘I was wrong,'” he says.

He ended up in Washington hitting behind Harper and ahead of Anthony Rendon, someone to whom Murphy refers as “the quietest superstar” in the game. Now there is a chance, depending on how manager Dusty Baker sets his batting order, that they will all have Trea Turner, a streak of light, and Adam Eaton hitting ahead of them. And when you talk about the struggles Harper had after April and May last season, Murphy actually laughs.

“That’s your word,” he says. “I call them his quote-unquote struggles, because all I know is that it seemed like he was on base in front of me at least twice a game.”

Now the Nationals, who have been knocking on the door for a while, who still haven’t made it to the World Series, are loaded again. With them, it will come down to the health of their starters, and the strength of their bullpen, particularly on the back end. But it ought to be as hard for opposing pitchers to work through Washington’s batting order as it will be going at the Chicago Cubs, champions of the world.

“There was that four-game series in May when [the Cubs] swept us last season,” Murphy says. “And I remember thinking, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to look like.’ All that traffic on the bases, what felt like every single inning. I feel like we can create that kind of traffic.”

In the middle of it all will be the second baseman who came to Washington from New York in January 2016, who seemed to come straight to all that from the previous October. He was one kind of hitter before he turned 30, one kind of player. Now he is another. Late bloomer, but never too late to become one of those. The pitchers are too good and the fielders are too good for you to get by just hitting the ball on the ground, Daniel Murphy says.

So he decided to try it another way. Figured out that what he’d been doing wasn’t the best way for him. First time up in the new ballpark on Tuesday, double to deep left-center. Get the ball in the air. Why he’s now breathing a different kind of air in the big leagues.

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