Brandon Morrow and the greatest pitching performance you likely forgot about

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

Some years later, the finer details of that game elude Brandon Morrow, which isn’t so unusual for him. A lot of games come back to him smeared around the edges, blurry in the middle, boxed up and put away on the day they’re here and gone. So this wouldn’t be any different. It’s not like he tries not to think about that game. He’s simply not one of those reflective souls who recall this pitch on this day to this hitter, except maybe for that backup slider to John Jaso in the eighth inning he got away with, the middle-middle mistake in mechanics or concentration or something that very nearly had him convinced he was going to throw a no-hitter.

He walked the day of that game to the ballpark along Front Street and Blue Jays Way, over the railroad tracks, like always. No one recognized him as the guy who would pitch for the Blue Jays that afternoon. No one ever did, not ever. When he considered that, which wasn’t often, because frankly he preferred it that way and there’d be no sense overthinking a good thing, he’d muse he must have one of those generic faces, is all. So the guy on the sidewalk on a mild Sunday afternoon who was just a guy on a walk or going for breakfast or a newspaper continued past the security guards and toward the silent hellos from the other nice folks at Rogers Centre.

Morrow was 26 years old on Aug. 8, 2010. He was new to Toronto, new to the Blue Jays, having made 21 starts for them since the trade from Seattle. It was going fine, too. After some previous conversations about him and his body and whether they’d be suited long term for the rotation or the bullpen, Morrow was a regular starter with Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum and Brett Cecil. The Blue Jays were pretty good, only assigned to a division in which three teams won 89 games or better, so they’d be fourth. But, still, they were pretty good. That rotation was young and on some days breathed fire, so this was whom the Blue Jays would be for a while, Brandon Morrow up near the front.

He’d pitch that afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays, the best team in the AL East who the day before had put 11 runs on the Blue Jays. And lost by six. Morrow was a big fellow who could push a fastball toward a hundred on some days. He struck out a lot of batters and walked his share too. Just four years out of Cal, the fifth pick in the 2006 draft (behind Luke Hochevar and Evan Longoria, ahead of Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer), Morrow was finding his place between health and infirm, between power and grace, between this pitch and that, and when and where, and gaining on it.

“I think Brandon always had a good ear,” said his catcher on Aug. 8, 2010, Jose Molina. “He was so good at listening. I’d just come out of New York, winning the World Series, and he had a lot of questions. He really wanted to learn to pitch. He wanted to learn how to set up hitters. He didn’t say much, but he was open to me. We had a lot of good talks.”

Brandon Morrow’s final line on Aug. 8, 2010: Nine innings, one hit, two walks, 17 strikeouts, 137 pitches, 97 strikes. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Morrow began that game with a fastball to Ben Zobrist, a foul ball, the first of what would be 137 pitches. He struck out Zobrist on the fourth pitch, the first of what would be 17 strikeouts. Then he struck out Carl Crawford. Then he struck out Evan Longoria.

Going on seven years later, Morrow sat in a hotel room in New York. He’d pitched an inning for the Los Angeles Dodgers a couple hours before. Across 24 appearances for a team that hardly loses anymore, Morrow has a 1.82 ERA, 31 strikeouts, four walks and a fastball that’s a hundred again. Against 94 batters he’s allowed 14 hits, three of them for extra bases, none of them for home runs. He’s tucked inside a bullpen that has the best ERA – 2.92 – in baseball, so after a rotation that has the best ERA – 3.15 – in baseball and in front of Kenley Jansen. After several years of injuries (forearm, shoulder, oblique, finger) and ailments (Valley Fever) and the usual challenges (diabetes) and role questions, he’d signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers in late January, reported to the bullpen, been promoted in late May, narrowed his pitch options to fastballs, sliders and cutters, and become one of those million tiny reasons teams go on to win 100 or 110 games.

He is, again, he said, “Free. I’m free to compete. I’m free to let my best stuff go and not worry about how I’m going to feel the next day.”

There is a line between playing the game and surviving it. Between, as he said, being hale enough to “compete,” to throw 137 pitches in three hours or 20 across 10 minutes, and not.

“It was just getting to the next start,” he said. “I didn’t have enough time to get ready and it was stressful each day.”

Honestly, he said, without the phone call and the questions, Aug. 8 would have passed without a thought to that day seven years before. Different time. Different uniform. A great day. A fun day. For sure. He laughed and said his clearest memory is of the fatigue at the end, the bone weariness so acute that when his celebrating teammates doused him with Gatorade, the impact nearly knocked the wind from him.

“I remember I had great stuff,” he said. “I located. I got lucky on the pitches I needed to get lucky on.”

Except for the one he didn’t get lucky on, the one he maybe shouldn’t have needed to get lucky on, the 129th of those 137 pitches, the outside fastball Longoria skipped toward right field with two out in the ninth inning and a no-hitter that close.

“The only pitch I remember was the one to Longoria at the end,” Molina said on the phone from Puerto Rico, seven years later.

See, he caught 915 games in his 15-year career. One, in 2004, started by Bartolo Colon and finished by Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival, was a combined one-hitter. Another, started and finished by Brandon Morrow, was a no-hitter until the 129th pitch.

“The base hit,” Molina said. “We both agreed on the pitch. That was the good thing about it. We went 100 percent with it. Fastball away. Like, ‘Hey, sure, let’s go with this.’ I never thought about it again. That was the right pitch.”

He laughed.

“We were so close,” he said.

No longer a starter, Brandon Morrow is hitting 100 miles per hour again as a reliever for the Dodgers. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

The Blue Jays played Longoria to pull, so second baseman Aaron Hill had too far to go, and the ball touched his glove and continued into right field. Molina went to the mound, his mask tucked under his left arm. The Blue Jays led only 1-0. Rays were on first and third. Dan Johnson was coming to the plate.

“Finish it up,” he told Morrow.

Eight pitches later, Morrow struck out Johnson. The final line: nine innings, one hit, two walks, 17 strikeouts, 137 pitches, 97 strikes.

The game score was 100. Bill James, the father of Sabermetrics, devised the equation of game score, which basically awards points to all the good things a pitcher can do and takes points away for the other stuff. Bottom line, there are 13 game scores of 100 points or better. Eight are no-hitters or perfect games. Among the others, one is Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in 1998. And one – standing with games thrown by Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer – is Brandon Morrow’s on Aug. 8, 2010, a pitching thunderbolt by a guy who’d never before thrown a shutout or a complete game, who two years later threw three more shutouts, and who today does not rue the innings lost to circumstance in the prime of his career, but holds to the satisfaction of perseverance.

“I’m proud to have even thrown one day in the major leagues, let alone 11 different seasons in the major leagues,” he said. “I’m beyond proud of that.”

Morrow’d walked home that night along the same route he’d come, unnoticed. When he arrived, he found that his grandfather, Richard, had sent an email congratulating him on the effort, just as he had after every game he pitched, though some had been more critical than this one. There wasn’t much to dislike about that day. Maybe the hanging slider to Jaso in the eighth. Maybe the two walks. It really was all a blur, even by then. He’d come so close to whatever passes for baseball history. It would have to be close enough. Seven years later, nearly, when he’d seemed to find some enjoyment in dislodging a few pieces of that game from his memory, he did recall one last feeling from that day, from the very end, when it was all over.

“I just wanted to lay down,” he said.

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