The Bright Spot in an Awful Season

The Mariners’ Brandon Morrow is the subject of great debate.

Drafted as a starter out of Cal, Morrow’s Mariner career has been confined to the bullpen.

Last July 8, the Los Angeles Angels held a scant 2½-game lead in the American League West over a hot Mariners team in the middle of a four-game winning streak. Across the country, the Yankees had just hammered the Angels 12–0, providing the Mariners an opportunity to gain further ground in their quest for a division title as they squared off against the Oakland Athletics.

In the top of the seventh inning, M’s left fielder Raul Ibanez came to the plate with the bases loaded. Ibanez slapped a double into the right-center field gap, sending all three runners racing for home. Jason Ellison, the M’s scrappy backup outfielder, scored easily, as did Ichiro Suzuki. But as Jose Lopez touched home, a relay throw hit him in the back and rolled to the feet of Ichiro, still standing near the plate. Oakland pitcher Joe Blanton was backing up the play, and in his scramble for the ball, Blanton pushed Ichiro out of the way—probably a little harder than necessary. Ellison, waiting to slap five with Ichiro, saw the whole thing go down. Although he gives up about 70 pounds and six inches to Blanton, Ellison stepped up to the pitcher and threw up his dukes. Both benches cleared.

From the bullpen, 22-year-old Brandon Morrow barreled towards the fracas with the rest of the M’s relievers, but he didn’t quite make it. Bullpen coach Jim Slaton physically restrained Morrow as the normally unassuming kid from the Bay Area tried to push his way into the fray.

Then Slaton saw Felix Hernandez, the M’s young ace from Venezuela, jawing with the A’s and approaching the pile. Slaton wanted to protect both pitchers from injury, but he had a decision to make: Who’s more valuable, Hernandez or Morrow? Slaton answered that question by abandoning Morrow and throwing his arms around Hernandez. Morrow nevertheless stayed out of the melee.

Fast forward to July 2 of this year: Hernandez is on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained ankle after a collision at home plate against the New York Mets a week earlier. The Mariners are in the cellar, 17½ games behind the division-leading Angels in a season that everyone agrees has been a disaster. The M’s are playing the rubber of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, a midseason contest between two teams who have both lost more games than they’ve won (Toronto has since improved to .500, but is still far out of first place in the American League East). The fans are content to enjoy a beautiful summer evening at Safeco Field, cheering loudest not for the Mariners but during the digital hydroplane race on the center-field scoreboard.

In the ninth inning, the M’s are up 4–2. The door to the bullpen swings open and Morrow jogs out. With J.J. Putz joining Hernandez on the disabled list with sore ribs, Morrow is the de facto M’s closer, with a bitchin’ ’80s metal theme song, Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” to prove it. Reaching the pitcher’s mound, Morrow fires seven warm-up pitches in the same sequence he employs before every outing: a fastball, another fastball, a changeup, a slider, another slider, and two more fastballs.

Morrow doesn’t have his best stuff tonight—he’s leaving his pitches high over the plate—but it doesn’t matter. Scott Rolen, Toronto’s third baseman, flies out to Ichiro in right field. Catcher Rod Barajas then lines out to Lopez at second base. Now the fans are on their feet, and there’s one out between Morrow and an M’s victory. He fires a fastball to Toronto’s first baseman, Lyle Overbay, who lets it slide through the inside corner for a called strike. Morrow’s next pitch is a changeup, high and outside for a ball. Then he uncorks a 97-mph fastball. Overbay swings and lines it to deep left field, into Ibanez’ waiting glove. Game over. This marks Morrow’s fifth save in as many opportunities, a rare sunbreak in an otherwise dreary season.

At the time of that save, Morrow’s stats were as close to flawless as a pitcher’s can get: He’d pitched 25¹³ innings, yielding but eight walks, 13 hits, and two earned runs, the most recent of which was more than a month earlier. He also had 32 strikeouts to go with a staggeringly low earned-run average of 0.71. Slaton was fired at the end of the 2007 season, but if he had to choose again which player to hold back from a scuffle, Morrow or Hernandez, you can bet the decision would be a lot harder.

But wait—didn’t Morrow start during his final year at the University of California? Didn’t the Mariners draft him as a starter? What was the organization doing throwing its best young pitching prospect into the bullpen? If the M’s were in contention, they might keep the skinny right-handed flamethrower in the role he filled before Putz was hurt: that of eighth-inning setup man. But when a team has won only a third of its games, there aren’t a whole lot of wins to set up. Hence, management recently decided—belatedly, some would argue—to make Morrow part of the starting rotation, sending him to Class AAA Tacoma, where he will gradually raise his pitch count without having to worry about Alex Rodriguez swatting a fourth-inning fastball over the fence.

Things had better go well, lest the Mariners be forever haunted by the fact that Tim Lincecum, the Renton-bred UW grad whom the M’s passed over for Morrow in the 2006 draft, has swiftly developed into an All-Star starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. For as good as Morrow’s been out of the pen, anything short of Lincecum-like success for Morrow the starter will represent a colossal failure in the eyes of many a local fan who was dumbstruck by the M’s decision to shun the hometown hand.

Morrow’s professional timeline goes like this: In July 2006, 10 days after the Mariners drafted him out of UC Berkeley, he signed a contract with a $2.4 million signing bonus and moved to Peoria, Ariz. But a weak shoulder limited him to seven games in Peoria and just one for the Class A Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino, Calif. So he lifted weights during the off-season, and when spring began to bloom, so did Morrow, developing his lights-out fastball to the point at which, just 10 months after he signed on with the organization, manager Mike Hargrove put him in the M’s bullpen, a meteoric promotion for a player so green.

The Mariners had never sent a player directly to The Show after his first spring training, yet there Morrow was on Opening Day 2007 standing on the foul line in a Mariner uniform. Turning Morrow into a starter could wait until next year, the club decided. He worked well out of the bullpen until September, at which point Morrow, and the Mariners, started an epic slide. On Sept. 4, Morrow gave up three hits and three runs in a third of an inning against New York. He was shelled again the following night, giving up two hits, two runs, and a walk without registering a single out. Five days later against Oakland, more of the same: two hits, three runs, and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. By this time, his ERA had reached a season high of 4.34. The Mariners too fell into decline—at the worst possible time. On August 25, the Mariners lost 5–3 to the Texas Rangers. They would lose their next eight in a row and win only twice in their next 16 outings, ultimately missing the postseason by six games.

After the season ended, the Mariners—minus Hargrove, who walked off the job around midseason—sent Morrow to Venezuela to play in the Winter League, where he would start games instead of coming out of the pen. The idea was to build his endurance so he could crack the starting rotation this year. In a little more than a month, Morrow pitched 36¹³ innings in seven starts for the Cardenales de Lara, averaging just over five innings per game, posting a record of 3–2 with a 2.72 ERA.

Sportswriters have worn their pencils to nubs using the adjectives “unassuming” and “humble” to describe Morrow. And it’s true. He’s not standoffish or unaccommodating, but refuses to brag. In fact, getting the guy to talk about himself can be as frustrating as cutting the outfield grass at Safeco Field with a pair of scissors. He and bullpen mate Ryan Rowland-Smith spent a month in Venezuela, which could, and very well may, have been the experience of a lifetime. But when asked about it, Morrow begins to describe the experience on the field:

“It was good to get back to starting, just getting back into a routine,” he says.

Right, but were there any big cultural differences? “It was hard to order food,” Morrow says. “There was a buffet at our hotel, but it was pretty sketchy, and there were no menus, so we had to just order what we knew. So I ate a lot of hamburgers and chicken because that’s what I could order in Spanish: hamburguesa and pollo.”

Despite the carnivorous Venezuelan diet, Morrow developed a changeup and a slider to complement his previously one-note (fastball-only) repertoire. But most of all, he managed to wrangle some semblance of control over the cannon attached to his right shoulder. In 2007, he walked more than 50 batters in 63¹³ innings. During Winter Ball, he struck out 31 and walked just eight.

Back in the States, however, Morrow began 2008 where he ended 2007: in the bullpen. Why?

“I know [the Mariners] saw the same thing that I saw in Peoria in spring training,” says Joe Sparks, a scout for the Athletics. “You say, ‘You know what? We got Putz that can close out games, and here’s a guy we can pitch in the seventh or eighth inning and we’ll be home free…’ He had command of his pitches. It didn’t look like he had anything to gain by going to AAA or AA.”

Sparks, however, says that if the M’s actually had been trying to groom Morrow for the starting rotation, they went about it all wrong. “If you decide that this guy’s going to be one of your starters, then it’s a different story,” Sparks says. “You want him to go down and start in AA or AAA and get as many innings as you possibly can.”

That said, Sparks concedes: “You could see right off the bat that this guy was going to make the team, because it was the perfect situation for him and the club to pitch at that level right after they signed him.”

One AL scout, who asked not to be named, says the M’s would have been better off sending Morrow to the minors far earlier to hone his starting chops—as the club recently did with Rowland-Smith, a steady left-handed long reliever who was sent to AAA Tacoma in late July to transition into a starting role. Rowland-Smith, who rejoined the Mariners this past Saturday, was 2–0 with a 2.89 ERA in 18²³ innings with Tacoma.

“[The Mariners] look like they went for the quick fix by rushing [Morrow] into middle relief last year,” the anonymous scout says. “No question in my mind he would have been better off developing in the minors last year. If they ultimately decided he was going to end up a closer, that’s fine. But I think they would have found out more about him as a starter in the minors last year than in 63 innings in the big-league pen.”

Mariner fans might be content to let Morrow dominate in relief if it weren’t for that scrawny kid from Renton, former UW phenom Tim Lincecum, who, with a 12–3 record and 2.68 ERA for the San Francisco Giants this season, was slated to play for the National League in this year’s All-Star game before the flu got hold of him. Lincecum, remember, was picked 10th overall—five spots behind his Pac-10 rival, Morrow—in the 2006 draft.

Bob Fontaine, the Mariners’ director of scouting, won’t discuss the Morrow-versus-Lincecum issue. But you can’t ignore Lincecum, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound right-hander with a windup that twists his body like a Slinky—a windup so unorthodox that Sports Illustrated devoted a cover story to him, branding him “The Freak.”

While preparing to release the ball, Lincecum kicks his leg high like Sandy Koufax and strides about 120 percent of his body height (a normal pitching stride is about 80 to 90 percent of a pitcher’s height). “You maximize the stride length so you’re building up energy from the body and requiring less from the arm,” says Dick Mills, a Scottsdale, Ariz.–based private pitching coach who had a cup of coffee with the Red Sox in 1970. “[Lincecum’s] body is moving fast, and the ligaments, tendons, and muscles are stretching out rapidly,” Mills says. “That produces stored elastic energy once that front foot lands. At that point the upper body is whipped through and the arm is part of the trunk, and the arm comes through and releases the ball.”

Nevertheless, that delivery, as well as Lincecum’s small size, had scouts worried in 2006, when nine teams, including the Mariners, passed on him. Yet in spite of Lincecum’s success to date, Sparks and the other scout still think the Mariners made the right decision.

“If you’re having a problem deciding between them, you probably take the guy with maybe a little better delivery that you think’s gonna hold up for a long time,” Sparks says. “And I know that was the question with Lincecum.”

“It’s easy to say they should have taken Lincecum,” says the other AL scout. “He has proved to be special, but he lasted until the 10th pick for a reason—and he went unsigned as a sophomore-eligible for a reason. It was easy to find things not to like about him, and it was easy to be scared off. It’s a lot less likely that he would become what he’s become—one of the few legitimate frontline starters in the big leagues—than scuffle with his command or get injured. It was reasonable to think those two things could have happened to him, considering his size and the unique delivery.”

Adds Sparks: “Every time I see [Lincecum] pitch, he strikes out 10 to 12 guys. And I’m sure if you put Morrow in that same situation, you’d probably get those same numbers.”

But to compare them at this point isn’t quite fair, cautions Mills. “You have to take a look at the size difference,” he says. “You have [Lincecum], who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 170, as opposed to [Morrow at] 6-foot-3, 185. You’re not really comparing apples to apples. Until they’re competing on an equal basis based on volume of pitches, it’s really difficult to say.”

Rohnert Park is a town of 41,000 in Sonoma County, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Jeff Ogston, now the head baseball coach at Rancho Cotate High School, was an assistant in 2003, when Morrow was dominating the pitcher’s mound in those parts.

Even then he could throw extremely hard. Ogston says Morrow hit the mid-90s on the radar gun when he was only a junior. (“A good high-school pitcher will throw in the low- to mid-80s,” he explains.) In addition to Morrow, Rancho Cotate had another dominant pitcher, Josh Tamba, who was drafted by the Orioles in the seventh round in 2006—but the team’s hitters struggled. “A lot of our games were low-scoring, close games, and if we made a mistake, it didn’t work out well,” Ogston says. “I think overall they were 14–10. But for having those guys on staff, we should have dominated.”

Morrow still returns to Rohnert Park when he can, tagging around town with his buddies and watching his younger brother Scott pitch for Rancho Cotate. He still plays catch with Ogston’s 9-year-old son, Devin, who lives a couple of blocks over from Morrow’s parents. Morrow has also become a spokesman for diabetes awareness, a disease he was diagnosed with in high school. And when Rancho Cotate needed a riding lawn mower, Morrow quietly bought one for his alma mater.

“Honestly, man, I don’t think there’re any stories about the guy,” Ogston says. “Still to this day, he’s about as humble as can be. [But] I think he knew he had bigger plans than everybody around him.”

But now that he’s a big leaguer, Morrow’s not exactly living the big-league lifestyle. Postgame, Morrow usually can be found in his Belltown apartment, playing video games or reading until he falls asleep. “I don’t really go out much,” he says. When he does leave home, people don’t recognize him—save for his pharmacist and the FedEx guy who, Morrow guesses, saw his name on his credit card.

In that sense, Morrow is perhaps the antithesis of J.J. Putz, the husky, gregarious redhead who now handles closing duties for the M’s. All fist-pumps after a save and jokes before a game, Putz gives bear hugs to reporters and shaving-cream pies to teammates. Different though their personalities may be, Putz, who preaches routine and preparation before a game, has passed his philosophy on to Morrow. That, Morrow says, is the secret to his extra control this year: doing the same thing before every game—stretching the same, throwing the same pitches, and always staying calm, regardless of his role.

Although, he adds, he’d prefer to start. “If you start,” he says, “it’s yours to win or lose.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, for Morrow or the Mariners. Before the season, most analysts predicted the M’s would be battling the Angels for the division title. And some in the Seattle media whispered that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year to see a World Series championship banner hoisted to the Safeco Field rafters.

Bill Bavasi sure thought so. During the past few seasons, the M’s then-general manager had moved aggressively, dropping cash on free agents like a rap star on Grey Goose. He signed Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and Jose Vidro. Combined, those three players are earning $37.4 million in 2008, or $15.6 million more than the entire roster of the Florida Marlins, contenders for a National League division title—and Sexson and Vidro aren’t even on the team anymore. Bavasi also traded veteran George Sherrill and a quartet of up-and-comers—outfielder Adam Jones and minor-league pitchers Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio, and Tony Butler—to Baltimore for starting pitcher Erik Bedard, a projected ace.

On Bedard’s first day in Seattle, Bavasi told The Seattle Times that it was time to stop rebuilding and start winning. But the 29-year-old Bedard, despite past successes, has struggled with injuries this year. Sherrill, meanwhile, is among the league leaders in saves and pitched in this year’s All-Star game, while the 23-year-old Jones has played spectacularly at times as the Orioles’ everyday center fielder.

Meanwhile, the M’s are on pace to become the first team in major-league history to lose 100 games despite a $100 million payroll. Bavasi was fired June 16. Three days later, manager John McLaren followed him out the door after Bavasi’s replacement, Lee Pelekoudas, fired him. Jim Riggleman, the team’s bench coach, took over McLaren’s role on an interim basis, and the franchise is effectively on cruise control until next year.

It now seems Morrow was merely keeping the closer seat warm for Putz, who last year saved 40 games in 42 opportunities. Suffering from a hyperextended elbow in addition to the injury to his ribs, Putz had worked only sporadically during the six weeks when Morrow racked up his 10 saves. In an August 3 game against the Orioles, Putz needed only nine pitches to get through the eighth inning, and Riggleman told the media it was only a matter of time until Putz was his old self and Morrow could be shipped to Tacoma.

Morrow relieved Putz in the ninth inning of that game. Oriole Luke Scott led off the inning by poking an 84-mph changeup into center field for a single. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz then watched Morrow’s first pitch, a 97-mph heater, catch the inside corner for a called strike. Quiroz fouled off the next pitch, also a fastball, before Morrow struck him out on a high fastball that registered 98 on the radar gun.

Shortstop Alex Cintron came up next, and Morrow threw him six more fastballs before inducing a fly-out to center. First baseman Brian Roberts then strode to the plate, and Morrow went back to his bread-and-butter, getting him to ground out on three straight fastballs. Final score: Mariners 8, Orioles 4, in a game that may have signaled the end of Morrow’s career as a reliever. Two days later, the club finally decided to send him to Tacoma to start, in the hope of having him join the big club’s rotation around Labor Day.

Cheney Stadium is 40 miles and a world away from Safeco Field. There, on August 6, the AAA Tacoma Rainiers are playing the Albuquerque Isotopes in a matinee, and Morrow is set to start. The crowd, composed almost entirely of prepubescent day-camp attendees, sounds like they took a collective huff of helium when they roar. They love it when the Tacoma mascot, Rhubarb the Reindeer, douses the first-base umpire with a bucket of water, and they’re also delighted to dance along when Rhubarb does the funky chicken. Along the first-base line, several members of the Rainiers’ bullpen are chatting with a rather top-heavy young lady as the rest of the team jogs onto the 9,600-seat stadium’s playing field.

Amid the frivolity, Morrow is making his first start since his winter in Venezuela. He fires off his warm-up pitches—fastball, fastball, changeup, slider, slider, and two more fastballs—before Albuquerque’s leadoff hitter, Tommy Murphy, comes to the plate. Morrow throws two fastballs outside the strike zone before Murphy swings at another and misses. He then manages to poke a grounder to second baseman Luis Valbuena, who tosses it to first baseman Craig Wilson for an easy out.

Struggling with his control early on, Morrow throws three straight balls to Robert Andino before the Albuquerque shortstop grounds out to Tacoma’s shortstop, Tug Hulett. During the next at-bat, Morrow’s fastball finds its way to the corners of the strike zone, and he whiffs first baseman Tagg Bozied to end the inning.

Morrow’s lone blemish comes against Dallas McPherson in the second inning, when the Isotope designated hitter bangs a double off the fence in left-center field. But Morrow gets Michael Ryan to ground out and Jason Wood to pop out to first base before Rainiers manager Daren Brown removes him from the game. (As is customary for pitchers attempting to build endurance, Morrow is governed by a tight pitch count, 35 in this game, which will increase incrementally with each start).

The Rainiers would go on to an easy 8–0 victory. Afterwards, Morrow squeezes through the cramped Rainiers locker room with a Coke and a couple slices of pizza. The entire clubhouse at Cheney Stadium is about half the size of the Mariners’ locker room. There are no plush leather couches, no big-screen TVs, no catered meals. But for Morrow, the Cheney locker room is at least as comfortable as the Mariners bullpen.

Morrow’s happy with his start, he says, although it was short. He talks a little more about his outing—how his full windup felt a little wobbly, being unaccustomed to it after so much time spent pitching out of the stretch when summoned into games with runners on base. But is he excited? Morrow, as eager to talk about himself as ever, answers, “Yeah!”

For once there’s a crack in his exterior. Here, in a minor-league locker room after his first minor-league start, Brandon Morrow’s doing something he rarely does. He’s smiling.

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