TORONTO – Sixteen pitches over two appearances, each at least 98 mph, the fastest clocking 99.6, to six batters, producing four ground balls, two fly balls, five outs total, and a meek little infield hit pounded into the turf.
That was Brandon Morrow over the weekend in Boston in his first two relief outings since 2009, and it was something. The stuff said closer, perhaps a dominant one at that. So did the results.
Where things go from here, and what it all means for both the right-hander and the Toronto Blue Jays is to be determined, but man those outings and the possibilities they suggest are pretty intriguing.
“There wasn’t enough time to get built up as a starter so that was out of the question,” says Morrow. “It’s nice to get back and contribute and hopefully throw some meaningful innings for the team, I’m just thankful for that right now. I missed being out there, competing and doing my job. It’s tough when you feel like you don’t really have a purpose – rehabbing can get really old if you don’t focus on the positives, like, ‘Hey, I’ve still got a chance to come back in September and help the guys.’”
The Blue Jays certainly banked on more from Morrow, who suffered a torn tendon sheath in his right index finger May 2 and was sidelined until last week. With a $10 million club option for 2015 that’s unlikely to be exercised, the 30-year-old is left with a month of salvage-mode time on a team aiming for a miracle rally to the post-season.
In the meantime, both sides are taking stock of the situation, plotting out the future.
Morrow the starter has tantalized the Blue Jays since his arrival via trade from the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 23, 2009, an injury-interrupted 2012 campaign when he was 10-7 with a 2.88 ERA in 21 starts with a 1.115 WHIP played out over a full season still the tempting reward that so far remains out of reach.
Morrow the reliever has long been an idea in the back of many minds around the team given his ability to blow up the radar gun with his fastball and a wipeout slider that plays even better in shorter stints, but no one has been ready to give up on him in the rotation.
Now, with free agency likely after injuries marred his past two seasons, that may change.
“If I had my choice it would be to have my option picked up, come back and have a productive season for the team and give them the value they expected when they signed me to the deal,” says Morrow. “But if that doesn’t happen, you see what offers come in and which option you feel like is your best opportunity. I’m not going to rule anything out, but I think that the starters’ innings add more value to the team than the relievers, throwing seven innings is more valuable to the team than throwing one every couple of days.
“You always want to be in the role that adds the most value team and when those offers come in, if that’s the route I have to go, I’ll just see which one affords me the best opportunity and go from there.”
Morrow has been a reliever before, serving as closer with the Mariners for stretches during the 2008 and ’09 seasons. In both those years he was also shuttled back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation as to his detriment Seattle vacillated on a role for him – a lesson the Blue Jays should heed with Aaron Sanchez next year.
The Blue Jays made clear to him he’d be a starter only once they picked him up and he’s shown more than enough over the past five years to hit the open market as a starter that will intrigue some teams. At the same time, a player’s most recent performance tends to stand out and with just six starts this year – four of them not particularly good – contrasted against whatever relief work he provides, how the other teams view him will be very interesting.
“The last two years have been tough injury and performance-wise and those things definitely played into it where I didn’t really feel all that aggressive at times this year, I didn’t really feel like I could let the ball go and not think about it,” says Morrow. “I didn’t get into that rhythm if maybe I’d stayed healthy longer than I did to gain that confidence in my stuff back.
“Right now, I feel great. Going out and throwing the ball like I have the last couple of times reminds you that it’s still there.”
Sitting 98 certainly helps in that regard, and it’s worth remembering that Morrow used to consistently carry 95, 96 deep into games, learning to harness it in 2010 and ’11, when he learned how to balance his effort level on the mound inning to inning, sometimes even pitch to pitch.
The way he pitched in relief over the weekend “was how it was early when I was here starting, really aggressive,” says Morrow. “My command wasn’t that great at times, but I was still attacking hitters and I feel like I’ve been doing that the last couple of times out. Relieving is simpler this time because my time with the Mariners, relieving, I wasn’t very much of a strike-thrower. I developed that over the years here and now it seems like when you’ve got confidence in your stuff, and you know you can throw strikes, it gives you that confidence as well.”
He’s got three weeks left to flash that form to the Blue Jays and everyone else, leaving them to decide if it looks good enough to sign him as a starter, or that it’s just about right coming out of the bullpen.