Barber: Brandon Morrow reinvented in Dodgers bullpen

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Brandon Morrow, right, and catcher Yasmani Grandal celebrate following a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Monday, May 29, 2017, in St. Louis. The Dodgers won 5-1. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)


A lot of baseball careers have been more productive than Brandon Morrow’s. Few have been more interesting.

Morrow, who grew up in Rohnert Park, has always been a tantalizing and heartbreaking pitcher. His stuff has frequently been electric. But something, usually an injury, has always gotten in his way. Just when you think Morrow is ready to take his place among the game’s aces, he gets derailed.

And just when you think he’s on the way out, here he comes again.

Morrow, who will be 33 on July 26, isn’t young anymore. He isn’t a starter anymore, either. But he has found rejuvenation in the bullpen of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who own a nine-game winning streak, a 23-3 mark in their past 26 games and, as of Monday afternoon, a comical 27-game lead over your Giants.

“It’s incredible, the run that this team has been on,” Morrow said by phone this weekend. “Since the second time I came up (from Triple-A on June 21), we may have two losses in that whole time. Maybe one more in San Diego? I can’t think of another. It’s been incredible to watch it and then really enjoyable to be a part of it.”

It’s another surprising twist in the saga of Brandon Morrow.

The then-Anaheim Angels drafted Morrow right out of Rancho Cotate High School in 2003, but he opted to play at Cal instead, and wound up going to the Seattle Mariners with the fifth pick in the 2006 draft. Four of the six picks that followed were used on Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer.

Morrow was a hot prospect, and he would, at times, justify the excitement. He was pitching for the Mariners at the age of 22, and at 23 he saved 10 games for them.

After a trade in December of 2009, Morrow became a starter for the Toronto Blue Jays. He went 31-25 between 2010 and 2012, with moments of brilliance. On Aug. 8, 2010, he struck out 17 Rays in a one-hit shutout, losing his bid for a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on a hard chopper past the second baseman. Morrow led the American League with 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011, and was seventh in the league with 203 overall. In 2012, he went 10-7 with three shutouts and an earned run average of 2.96.

Morrow was a big, strong righty who routinely flirted with 100 miles per hour. But his body was also his limitation. He has spent time on the disabled list for biceps tendinitis, arm inflammation, an oblique strain, radial nerve entrapment, a strain to his index finger tendon sheath and shoulder inflammation, and has been fought through lesser maladies ranging from forearm tightness to lower-back stiffness.

Morrow’s medical history went to a new level in January of 2016 when he was diagnosed with valley fever, a fungal infection of the lungs that mimics flu symptoms.

The pitcher was already in a diminished state when he contracted the fungus. Morrow had undergone surgery to repair a shoulder impingement in August 2015, and was getting back to long toss when he re-signed with the Padres that December. It was on a flight home to Scottsdale, Arizona, following a team physical that he started feeling ill.

It took three weeks, two trips to urgent care and a visit to a pulmonary specialist to diagnose valley fever

“It was pretty bad,” Morrow said. “I had a spot in my lung around the infection, where it was necrotizing. I had a little hole in the tissue. … Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. You know, there’s valley fever survivor websites and stuff like that. People die of it.”

Morrow survived, obviously. But he had already lost 10 pounds while rehabbing the shoulder surgery, and would drop 15 more recovering from the fungal infection.

“The first time I met Andy Green, brand-new (Padres) manager, was in Arizona, my first day back in the complex. I mean, I looked like hell,” Morrow said. “I’m sure they were like, ‘What’s going on with this guy?’ ”

When the 2016 season began, Morrow felt OK. But he didn’t have the stamina to go deep into games. He was knocked around in High-A (Lake Elsinore), in Double-A (San Antonio) and in Triple-A (El Paso). When the Padres sent him back down to extended spring training in Arizona, his path was clear. Morrow was now a relief pitcher.

It was the right decision. By mid-August 2016, he was back in San Diego. Morrow made 18 appearances for the Padres, mostly in middle relief, and posted a 1.69 ERA.

But he had to become a different pitcher to get there. The former power pitcher struck out just eight batters in 16 innings.

“I relied a lot on my cutter through that time, and just being to get off-barrel (of the bat),” Morrow said. “Keeping my pitch counts low, keeping the ball on the ground. And I just located it really well for a month and a half. The hits were there, but I had a decent amount of double plays. I’d get three outs before I gave up three hits to drive a run in.

“I think my fastball velocity was about my career average, but I didn’t really feel like I had much more than that, to really blow one by somebody or really make them fear the fastball.”

In January, Morrow signed a one-year, $1.25 million minor-league contract with the Dodgers. It was a modest reward for a guy who had made $8 million a year in his final two seasons with the Blue Jays, but it gave him a chance to contribute to a contender.

Those contributions built gradually. Morrow failed to make the Dodgers roster out of spring training, and had a couple disastrous outings for Triple-A Oklahoma City in April.

But he found his groove in early May, was called up to the majors later that month when Los Angeles starter Alex Wood got hurt, went back to Oklahoma City on June 10 when Wood was activated and returned to the Dodgers on June 21.

Morrow did not allow an earned run in his first 11 appearances for LA, earning the trust of manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.

Because this is Brandon Morrow we’re talking about, it has not been a seamless run. He has allowed four runs in his past five games, covering a total of three innings. Still, his overall numbers are impressive: a 2-0 record, a 2.30 ERA and a stellar 0.894 WHIP, with 20 strikeouts in 152/3 innings.

“From our fielders to some of the rumblings from the opposition, the stuff really plays up,” Roberts told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. “It’s the 99-mile-per-hour fastball, the hard slider, getting right-handers and left-handers out. I’ve put him in some big spots, some higher-leverage spots, and he’s doing everything he can to showcase himself.”

Morrow has recovered the velocity that made him a coveted starter. But he’s also using the cutter that helped him survive in 2016.

“It’s a great pitch for when you’re behind in the count, when somebody’s really hunting a fastball,” he said. “It’s really important just to throw that little extra wrinkle in there.”

The Dodgers are nearly untouchable at the back end of their bullpen, with set-up man Pedro Baez and closer Kenley Jansen. Their middle relief is a mix-and-match effort, and Morrow has made himself an important part of it.

In return, he’s getting what he wants from the relationship. In 10 previous MLB seasons, Morrow never tasted the playoffs. The scorching Dodgers are on pace for 110 wins. This could be his chance.

“That’s the main reason why I signed here, to pitch in the postseason and have a chance to win a World Series,” Morrow said. “In the situation I was in, there was probably a lot of better options to make a team, and be on the team the whole year and pitch significant innings and be a guy in a bullpen that doesn’t have as much experience or talent, or depth. But I wanted to win.”

The Dodgers’ pitching depth is substantial. Morrow believed his ability and his guile would help him infiltrate it. He was right. He’s had some good luck this season, too. And that’s another new twist for the Sonoma County native.

You can columnist writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.