(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's 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 entering Friday night's series opener against the Cincinnati Reds.
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"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 (33-21), 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 mark shared by Montreal's Al Oliver and Marquis Grissom. That's some impressive company but nothing compared to 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 in the NL East 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 batting .400 in a season is a daunting task, it's not crazy to think Murphy could win the NL batting title. He has a comfortable cushion, up 52 points on Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun.
After leaving the Mets 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.'"
Keeping it going would be a big boost to Gio Gonzalez (3-3), who is coming off a horrid two-start stretch in which he's allowed 13 earned runs over 9 2/3 innings.
After allowing 10 hits - three of them homers - and seven runs in a 7-1 loss to the Mets on May 23, he gave up six runs and six hits in a 9-4 loss to St. Louis on Saturday. It was the first time in his career he allowed six earned runs in back-to-back starts, and they ballooned his ERA from 1.86 to 3.57.
The Reds (19-35) will hand to ball to Brandon Finnegan (1-4, 4.14 ERA) looking to end an eight-game losing streak in his starts. Cincinnati hasn't won when he pitches since he earned his only victory in a 9-8 win over the Cardinals on April 16.
"It's really easy to get frustrated, it's easy to make excuses, too, at the same time," Finnegan said. "I don't question anybody's effort. Everyone's out there wanting to do the same thing. We want to win. It doesn't matter if we're rebuilding or not.
"We've got the talent on this team to win, and I think we can. It's a matter of getting on a roll, something we haven't had since the first week of the season. I think it's going to come. It's just one of those things, we have to grind out every pitch."
Cincinnati appears poised to end Finnegan's slump behind an offense that has come to life with 44 runs scored during a 4-2 stretch, although four of those games and 33 of the runs came at hitter-friendly Coors Field.