Jays encouraged by Morrow’s dominant start

Brandon Morrow had nine strikeouts, setting the stage for a Jays win on some smart, timely hitting by the Blue Jays.

Brandon Morrow showed Wednesday that he can still dominate when his fastball-slider combination is working. After spending the final four months of last season on the disabled list and struggling in his 2014 debut, Morrow turned in an encouraging performance as the Blue Jays beat the Houston Astros 7-3 at Rogers Centre.

“I felt good so I was throwing with some conviction and with plenty behind it,” he said.

That might even be an understatement. Morrow’s fastball was in the 97-98 m.p.h. range early on, considerably higher than last year when his average fastball sat between 93 and 94 mph. He says the extra velocity was simply a pleasant surprise.

“I wasn’t going max-effort or anything, there’s just those days where it’s coming out like that,” he explained. “I don’t think I ever go out there and throw as hard as I can in the first inning, it just happened to come out really good today.”

All in all Morrow pitched six innings, striking out nine Astros, including five of the first six batters he faced. He relied primarily on the electric fastball-slider combination, but turned to his curve and splitter for different looks. He was perfect through three innings and held the Astros scoreless through five before allowing three runs, including a two-run home run to Alex Presley, in his sixth and final inning of work.

“Overall he was dominating,” manager John Gibbons said. “He was pumping it pretty good. Good breaking ball.”

Catcher Dioner Navarro agreed, suggesting that this was the best stuff he has seen from Morrow since joining the Blue Jays this spring. “He was throwing all of his pitches really good, and he gave us a real shot to win the game,” said Navarro, who contributed two hits and a surprising stolen base to the delight of the 13,569 in attendance.

To be fair, Morrow was facing a below-average lineup that included a 5’6” cleanup hitter (Jose Altuve) and three starters who have yet to appear in 100 career games (Marc Krauss, Robbie Grossman, Jonathan Villar). Astros batters broke the major league record for strikeouts in a season last year, and while they should be better in 2014, this is a team coming off of three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses.

Going into the game, pitching coach Pete Walker wanted to see better results from Morrow, who allowed seven hits and four earned runs against the Rays in his season debut. “We’re looking for a little more depth on his slider, we’re looking to utilize that fastball equally as well and pound the strike zone,” Walker said.

He got his wish, as Morrow stayed around the strike zone, throwing 60 of 86 pitches for strikes and issuing just one walk. Early on the right-hander relied heavily on the two pitches that drew praise from Houston manager Bo Porter before the game. “He’s going to live and die with his fastball, and it’s a putaway slider for chase, so we’ve got to make sure we get him in the zone and when he comes into the zone put a good swing on it,” Porter said.

With the exception of Presley’s blast to right-centre, Houston’s hitters didn’t put many good swings on Morrow’s pitches Wednesday. And while the Astros certainly project as a below-average team, Morrow’s outing is encouraging nonetheless. It’s now a little easier for the Blue Jays to envision the best-case scenario for Morrow: that he could be a difference maker in the 2014 rotation.

“He was very aggressive tonight. He had that look about him, too. Confident. But that’s what he’s capable of doing,” Gibbons said. “It’s something to build off of.”

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