Maybe Mike Hargrove was trying to tell us something. Two years ago, toward the conclusion of spring training in Arizona, I asked the former Mariners manager to identify the player whose performance at camp had most surprised him.
“Stephen Morrow,” answered Hargrove, “has been really impressive.”
The skipper, as we later would learn when he quit in the middle of a surprisingly resurgent season, was dealing with some job-commitment issues. Hargrove meant Brandon Morrow, though the last name could just as well be Murphy – as in the aerospace engineer given credit for theorizing that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
It was wrong for the Mariners to select Morrow in the first round of the 2006 draft, ahead of University of Washington ace Tim Lincecum. It was wrong for the Mariners to rush Morrow into the big leagues after he’d pitched only 16 innings at Single A.
It was wrong for the Mariners to convert Morrow to a reliever in 2007, stunting his progress as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter.
It was wrong to promote him last August from Tacoma, where he was given a mere five starts before he got the call to join the rotation in Seattle.
It was wrong to renege on the commitment to keep him as a starter in spring training, when he volunteered to fill the closer’s job made vacant by the trade that sent J.J. Putz to the Mets.
It was wrong for manager Don Wakamatsu to give Morrow custody of a 2-0 ninth-inning lead at Texas on the afternoon of May 14, some 18 hours after the Rangers left the closer shell-shocked on the night of May 13. (He gave up two homers in the day game, and the 2-0 lead turned into a 3-2 defeat.)
It was wrong for Wakamatsu to start Morrow this past Saturday in Colorado, where the mile-high altitude minimizes the break in breaking pitches. It was wrong to inform Morrow that he was on a modest pitch count – 60 or so – that likely distracted him sometime between the first pitch he threw and, well, the second pitch he threw.
And it’s wrong to assign Morrow another start in San Diego, where he’s scheduled to throw about 80 pitches Thursday afternoon.
Wrong, wrong, all wrong.
Morrow needs to work on polishing the command of his fastball and achieving the confidence required to surprise a batter with a secondary pitch in a fastball situation. The Padres don’t boast a murderers’ row lineup, but these guys are major-league hitters, and Brandon Morrow isn’t a major-league starter.
He should be pitching for the Tacoma Rainiers. Not for a handful of starts, not for a few weeks or a month, but for the remainder of the Triple-A season.
Furthermore, Morrow wants to be in Tacoma. A bright guy susceptible to sometimes over-thinking things, Morrow finally has come to grips with the reality that the best way to become an effective starter with the Mariners is to prove he is an effective starter with the Rainiers.
Morrow wasn’t kicking and screaming about returning to the minors; to the contrary, he seemed to take comfort in the notion there are no shortcuts to success. And yet, just when everything appeared to be clear about Morrow’s future – he would report to Tacoma and remain in Tacoma indefinitely – the Mariners tell him to stay put because Erik Bedard has minor shoulder inflammation and Jarrod Washburn has some tightness in his back.
Not to presume playoff contention is an impossibility after the weekend sweep at Colorado finds the Mariners three games under .500, but nothing this team does over the next few weeks will be more critical than determining a plan for Brandon Morrow, and staying true to it.
General manager Jack Zduriencik’s hiring of Wakamatsu was a home run. Tireless, informed and dedicated to every detail, Wakamatsu somehow is able to mask his zealousness with a regal stoicism in the dugout. He’s the perfect fit for a team that is both rebuilding and attempting to remain relevant in the standings.
But Wakamatsu’s management of Morrow has been as inept as John McLaren’s management of the 2008 clubhouse. Wakamatsu explains his reluctance to send Morrow to Tacoma because the major-league competition is “doing it where it matters … I don’t think you can emulate, or substitute, pitching in a major league ballgame. ”
Or, ahem, not pitching in a major-league ballgame. Since Morrow blew those back-to-back save opportunities at Texas and gave up his closer’s role to David Aardsma, he’s worked 13 innings. In a month.
Think about this: Since May 14, Morrow has pitched as much as the 170-pound Harvey Haddix pitched one night in 1959, when the Pittsburgh left-hander retired 36 hitters in a row before an error broke up the perfecto and a homer by the Braves’ Joe Adcock ended game.
“I could have put a cup of coffee on either side of the plate,” Haddix said later, “and hit it.”
Hitting a cup of coffee set up on either side of the plate, that’s the art of pitching. Morrow needs to practice his art in Tacoma, but he won’t be able to practice it until the Mariners understand that the major leagues are no place for a student, no matter how gifted, to learn his craft.
Hang in there, kid,
We’ll leave the light on for you.
John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154