Entering the 2017 season, Brandon Morrow had never thrown in an MLB playoff game. Finally, after a wondrous year and 104 regular-season wins by his Los Angeles Dodgers, the Rohnert Park native was able to pitch into October. And pitch some more. And pitch, and pitch and pitch. He was still pitching when we hit November.
By the time the season ended with the Houston Astros’ victory against the Dodgers in Game 7 of an epic World Series, the National Baseball Hall of Fame was asking for Morrow’s cap and cleats.
Morrow, a starter for most of his career, had tied two significant records as a reliever, becoming the second player ever to pitch in 14 games in one postseason (matching Cleveland’s Paul Assenmacher in 1997) and in seven World Series games (joining the A’s Darold Knowles in 1973).
It was a major triumph for a guy who has persevered through type 1 diabetes, Valley fever and, most recently, shoulder surgery. And yet it ended with Morrow watching numbly from the home dugout as the Astros celebrated at Dodger Stadium on Nov. 1.
“I guess I’ve had pretty conflicting feelings about it,” Morrow said. “You feel pretty down when you think about being so close and not coming through. And then you’ll see on Twitter, or on TV, or something with the Astros on there — if they’re going on late-night television or ‘Good Morning America,’ stuff like that. And seeing pictures of them at Disneyland, just thinking how close you got.”
The flip side of Morrow’s feelings was obvious. He had started the season in the minor leagues, and had finished it as a crucial member of a World Series team.
Morrow, a 2003 Rancho Cotate grad, was speaking to me by phone as he made the straight shot through the desert from L.A. to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives in the offseason. He was caravaning with his wife and baby, who were approximately 10 minutes ahead of him on I-10.
No one could have guessed that Morrow would pitch in 14 of the Dodgers’ 15 postseason games, but he said that manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt had made it clear that he was destined for heavy usage.
“I guess we call it the Andrew Miller role,” Morrow said, a reference to the Cleveland Indians’ brilliant middle reliever.
In other words, Morrow would generally enter the game to face the heart of the opposing lineup, probably in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, and form a bridge from the Dodgers’ starter to shutdown closer Kenley Jansen.
The Dodgers kept building leads as they swept the Diamondbacks in a National League division series and downed the Cubs in five games in the NL championship series, and Roberts kept turning to Morrow to set up Jansen.
Despite being a postseason neophyte, Morrow said the only time he felt butterflies was before the first game of each series, when the teams would line up along the baselines for pregame introductions. Other than that, he was ready every time the bullpen phone rang. Well, sort of.
“The phone is actually what can kind of set you off. That loud ring with the strobe light on the phone so you don’t miss it,” he said. “But once you get the ball in your hand, then things kind of settle into more normalcy.”
As the World Series progressed and Roberts tightened the leash on his pitchers, Morrow began to appear earlier and earlier. He replaced Clayton Kershaw to start the eighth inning in Game 1, came on in the seventh in Game 2, and entered in the sixth in Games 3 and 4.
Morrow held the line in all of those games. At that point, his postseason ERA was 1.42. And then it all exploded.
Roberts told the pitcher before Game 5 that he did not plan to use him for the third night in a row. But when Kershaw was pulled in the fifth inning and Kenta Maeda struggled in relief, Morrow reversed the charges on the bullpen phone. He called Roberts in the dugout and insisted he was ready for duty.
Roberts took him up on the offer, and it was a disaster. When Morrow took the mound to start the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers led 8-7. But George Springer hit his first pitch into the left-field seats, Alex Bregman followed with a single, Jose Altuve doubled and Carlos Correa connected for a two-run homer. Morrow had thrown six pitches and given up four runs, without recording an out.
The Astros eventually won 13-12 on Bregman’s single against Jansen in the 10th. Many Dodgers left their fingerprints on that loss, but Morrow tried to claim it, telling reporters in Houston that he had been “selfish” in requesting to pitch.
“Obviously coming out, I didn’t have quite the life on the ball, and the velocity was just a tick enough down for them to get the barrel to it,” Morrow told me. “Once the lead was lost, there wasn’t any reason to leave me in.”
I asked Morrow if he felt his coaches’ confidence waver at all after that letdown, and he said it was never an issue.
Roberts and his staff were emphatic: They needed Morrow as much as ever, and would call his name the next time they needed the bridge.
Sure enough, Roberts summoned Morrow to the mound with bases loaded and two out in the top of the fifth inning of Game 6, with the Astros leading 1-0. The pressure was off the charts. But Morrow got Bregman to ground out to end the inning, and set down Altuve and Correa to start the sixth before yielding a single to Yuli Gurriel. Roberts pulled him, and the Dodgers came back to win, forcing Game 7.
Roberts had big plans for Morrow in the clincher, too. He told his reliever to be ready to pitch to the heart of the Houston order as early as the second time through the lineup.
But the scenario didn’t unfold as planned. As Morrow warmed up with the Dodgers trailing 2-0 in the second, the Astros tagged starter Yu Darvish for three more runs. Morrow came in to strike out Bregman and end the inning, then headed to the bench as Kershaw took the mound for a memorable four-inning relief appearance.
Houston won 5-1 to claim its first World Series title.
“In a seven-game series, you feel like coming out of it, you would just absolutely hate the other team. But there’s obviously a lot of respect there for the way they played,” Morrow said. “It wasn’t a team that I came away hating. I mean, obviously there was the big thing with Gurriel after he hit the homer against Darvish (and made a racist gesture in the dugout). But other than that, the way they played and the way they kind of went about business didn’t leave any feelings like that.”
After it was over, Morrow received congratulations from Knowles, who used to hand over games to Rollie Fingers for the Swingin’ A’s. In a strange twist, Morrow knows Knowles well. The latter used to serve as pitching coach of the Toronto Blue Jays’ High-A team in Dunedin, Florida. And Morrow, who has frequently struggled with injuries, made rehab assignments there every year from 2011 to 2014.
“I mean, the only guy in history to ever throw in all seven games of the World Series,” Morrow said. “That’s pretty awesome that he’s down there. And then to match that, knowing the guy was pretty cool.”
Morrow’s postseason pitching rate was unknown territory for him. But he insisted his arm held up well.
“You always kind of feel more sore once the season’s over than you did maybe the last time through,” Morrow said. “All the need to keep your body going — your body knows. It’s kind of weird, but your body knows. There was more of a full-body kind of fatigue, and for just a couple days. I mean, already I feel pretty fresh right now.”
With his current Dodgers cap on the way to Cooperstown, the question is: Will he get another one? As important as Morrow was to Roberts’ team this year, as transcendent his season, there is no guarantee he’ll be back. He is a free agent.
At one point, I asked Morrow when he would begin to get serious about signing his next contract. “What time is it?” he asked. I told him it was 2 p.m. He looked at the clock in his car; it read 1:59. This was on Monday.
“So yeah, free agency opens in one minute,” Morrow said with a laugh.
So there it was. During our conversation, Morrow had officially hit the open market. The MLB Trade Rumors website ranked him at No. 19 among 2018 free agents, projecting a three-year, $24 million salary. It would be a substantial bump for a guy who played for $1.25 million in 2017. That’s what pitching in seven World Series games can do for you.
“Obviously, I’d love to be able to go back to LA,” Morrow said. “When you go as far as you did, and you make connections on the team, you don’t want to leave a good situation. I mean, the talent they have is unbelievable, and young. They’re gonna be good for the foreseeable future. … But other than that, I don’t know what to expect at all. It’s crazy.”
If Brandon Morrow has taught us anything, it’s that you really can’t predict the next phase of a pitcher’s career. This one is worth watching, though.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.