Near no-no took toll on ex-Rancho star

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat Former Rancho Cotate High and Cal star Brandon Morrow waves to fans before Tuesday night's Toronto-A's game in Oakland.

BY LOWELL COHN

The Press Democrat

OAKLAND

Brandon Morrow surged into Tuesday night’s game against the A’s riding the crest of a tidal wave. In his last start, Aug. 8 against Tampa Bay, he had a no-hitter going with two outs in the ninth inning, only to lose it on a groundball single to right by Evan Longoria.

Along the way he struck out 17, the most by a major-league pitcher this season. That’s what you call dominating. Forget dominating. It’s devastating. He came into Tuesday night’s game with a career-high four wins in a row and he had not lost since June 29. If you wonder why I’m chronicling Morrow’s season, where have you been?

Morrow, 26, attended Rancho Cotate High School and Cal Berkeley. His parents still live in Rohnert Park and his dad, John, is the baseball coach at Rancho Cotate. So, this is a local-boy-makes-good story, and how.

If there was a downside to Morrow’s almost no-hitter, 17-strikeout game — and how could there be a big downside? — it was the 137 pitches he threw. That number, 137, is enormous in this day of pitch counts. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston gave Morrow extra days to recover. In fact, Morrow rested eight days before facing the A’s, an unprecedented sabbatical in-season for a starting pitcher.

Morrow seemed to be feeling the effects of something when he began the game — either the long rest or the 137 pitches or both. He immediately gave up two consecutive doubles on elevated fastballs to start the first inning, long fly balls to deep left center. They accounted for one run. He allowed the second run when he wild-pitched Daric Barton from second to third and then from third to home. Morrow didn’t look like the guy who’d stood the Rays on their heads.

“I didn’t have my best stuff by far,” he said afterward. “My fastball wasn’t that great.”

Maybe not, but after giving up two runs, the only runs he would allow, he did what good pitchers do — found his groove, his rhythm, whatever you want to call it. In fact, he seemed to be cruising, which made it surprising when Gaston got his bullpen up in the bottom of the fourth on Morrow’s 72nd pitch of the game. Even though Morrow got out of the fourth with no damage, Gaston took him out after just 80 pitches.

Morrow didn’t know it but he was on a predetermined limit of roughly 80 to 90 pitches because of the long layoff. After the fourth, Gaston removed him, thinking it was pointless to have Morrow warm up and then throw a few pitches and then come out in the fifth. Morrow didn’t argue.

“I wasn’t too sharp tonight,” he said. “I seemed to be behind a lot and ran up my pitch count. Unfortunately, I only got the four innings out of the 80 pitches. I didn’t feel that sharp and I felt lucky just to keep us in there at that point.”

Someone asked if the extended rest made him rusty.

“Hard to say,” he replied. “I haven’t gone through that before. It’s still a learning process. Some guys say they’re rusty after too much rest. I don’t want to blame it on that. I just wasn’t that sharp. I wasn’t putting the ball where I wanted to for most of the night and then you try and take something off or add a little. I just didn’t have that extra little gear I had the last few games and I didn’t have great command. It was a so-so outing with a high pitch count.”

Morrow had left 24 tickets for friends and family to watch him work. He figured a bunch more drove down and bought tickets. He had come to the Coliseum a lot as a kid, more to Oakland than the Giants. When he was 10 he came to the Coliseum on Little League Day to see Randy Johnson pitch and Johnson threw a one-hitter. (If you’re looking for parallels to Morrow, that’s one.) “My dad said, ‘Look how tall that guy is,’” Morrow said. “I didn’t know too much who he was then. My grandparents were A’s fans and used to come over with elderly day-tripping from Santa Rosa and I would come with them, too.”

And now Morrow is the guy throwing one-hitters. This you should know. Morrow was the fifth selection in the 2006 draft, taken by the Seattle Mariners. That means he was taken five spots ahead of Tim Lincecum, an event fans in Washington State noticed and resented — Lincecum is from Washington.

Morrow was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Mariners didn’t know what to do with Morrow. They tried him at starter and reliever, even at closer — a pitcher with a golden arm bouncing from role to role. After the 2009 season, they traded him to Toronto, where, to say the least, he’s flourished. It is possible Morrow could become the pitcher Lincecum used to be and may never be again.

It’s funny how history rewrites itself if you’re patient and you wait long enough.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.