Morrow’s woes highlight a bigger issue

A.J. Pierzynski hit his eighth career grand slam and Clay Buchholz picked up his first win of the season as the Boston Red Sox hung on to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays.

Brandon Morrow’s ugly start put the Toronto Blue Jays at an early disadvantage against the Boston Red Sox Saturday, and it also highlighted a bigger issue facing manager John Gibbons. Whenever Morrow or Dustin McGowan has taken the mound, the Blue Jays haven’t been able to count on much besides the fact that their long relievers should stay loose.

Morrow couldn’t find the strike zone Saturday, missing with 39 of his 65 pitches and issuing eight walks and four runs as the Blue Jays lost 7-6 despite a late-inning rally. His season ERA spiked to 6.04 after just 2.2 innings of work, even though he held the Red Sox hitless for one of the more bizarre pitching lines of the season.

To Morrow’s credit, he assumed full responsibility for the ’embarrassing’ outing, explaining that he ‘failed’ to keep his team in the game.

“It’s not a good feeling when you can take the blame for the game and put it squarely on your shoulders,” Morrow said after the game. “I came in with one goal and that was to pitch late in the game and keep us in it. I let down the team in a big way.”

The Blue Jays took issue with the strike zone of home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg, as pitching coach Pete Walker got ejected. Still, Morrow must be able to keep the ball over the plate no matter who happens to be umpiring.

“It’s embarrassing to not be able to command the fastball,” he said, noting that many of his pitches missed by more than just a little. “That’s the number one thing you have to do is command the fastball.”

With Morrow and McGowan averaging fewer than five innings per start, the Blue Jays have had to rely increasingly on their long relievers. Todd Redmond has logged more innings than McGowan this season. Esmil Rogers isn’t far behind.

Morrow’s command issues Saturday meant reliever Chad Jenkins had to make his season debut with the bases loaded in front of 40,322. The right-hander promptly surrendered a grand slam to A.J. Pierzynski and a solo home run to Will Middlebrooks, the following batter.

“I had already handcuffed him with the bases loaded,” Morrow said. “He had to come in and throw strikes and they were looking to do some damage. I deserved to have that ball go out of the ballpark [instead].”

Overall, Jenkins’ season debut went nearly as poorly as Morrow’s start, with three runs allowed on five hits, including two home runs. The 2009 first round pick acknowledged before the game that he must earn every appearance given his modest big league track record. He got the call because Gibbons didn’t want to bring in Brett Cecil or Aaron Loup so early in the game.

“If you’re going to one of those guys in the third inning, you’re in big trouble,” Gibbons said. “You might as well pack it in to be honest with you.”

Morrow said he felt fine physically and was able to locate his off-speed pitches with some consistency. Catcher Dioner Navarro agreed that Morrow’s pitches had good life, explaining that the right-hander simply had “a tough time throwing the ball over the plate.”

As long as Morrow and McGowan continue faltering, the Blue Jays need at least a couple of long relievers. That makes an eight-man bullpen all the more tempting and limits Gibbons’ options off of the bench. Erik Kratz remains at triple-A Buffalo and Juan Francisco, who has homered in both games of the Red Sox series, could join him once Adam Lind returns from the disabled list. Either Kratz or Francisco would offer welcome power off of the bench, but both could be casualties of a roster crunch stemming from the Blue Jays’ need for bullpen depth.

Morrow even came close to making some history. His start marked the 11th time in Blue Jays history that a pitcher walked at least eight batters, one shy of the franchise record. The last time an MLB pitcher allowed four or more runs without allowing a hit was in June, 2009 when Dontrelle Willis pulled it off. Despite the poor outing, Gibbons declined to blame Morrow or his starting staff as a group.

“This is a team, it’s not hitters against pitchers,” he said. “It’s 25 guys. I’m not going to get caught up in all this. We’ve been struggling in certain areas, it’s no secret, but we’re going to get better.”

While the Blue Jays are somewhat non-committal about McGowan’s future in the rotation, they need Morrow to find the strike zone often enough to let his dynamic fastball-slider combination shut opponents down. More quality innings from him would mean the Blue Jays won’t have to ask so much of their offence or their ever-expanding selection of long-relievers.

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