First Pitch: Sox find a winner in Morales


First Pitch: Sox find a winner in Morales

SEATTLE - In defeat, sometimes there are discoveries.

Thursday night, while much of New England slept, the Red Sox found something, even as they were suffering a frustrating 1-0 setback to the Seattle Mariners.

When Franklin Morales limited the lowly Chicago Cubs to just two runs over five innings almost two weeks ago at Wrigley Field, the Red Sox were pleasantly surprised. Morales had, on short notice, been thrown into the rotation as a fill-in for Josh Beckett, and Morales had given them a quality start out of nowhere. He was, after all, making his first start in more than three years.

When Morales pitched well again in his next outing, the Sox took more notice, as he allowed two earned runs over six innings to a better offense, the Atanta Braves.

But when Morales went pitch for pitch, scoreless inning for scoreless inning, with Felix Hernandez Thursday night in the opener of the Sox' West Coast road swing, they became true believers.

Three starts or not, Morales is now officially beyond fluke status.

"He's done an incredible job,'' said Adrian Gonzalez. "We all knew he had that in him. He just feels the game really good. He understands how to pitch guys. It was King Franklin vs. King Felix today.''

Morales now made three starts for the Sox and has struck out 24 hitters over 18 innings while issuing just three walks, and became the first Red Sox starter since Curt Schilling to strike out at least seven in each of his first three starts in a season.

The same guy who was a decent middle reliever just over two weeks ago now is a dominating starter.

Bobby Valentine thought Morales would be well-suited to start, but surely even he could not have imagined that Morales would be this good.

"Well, I don't think anyone can pitch like this all season,'' cautioned Valentine. "But he's pitched extremely well. He's been aggressive in the strike zone. He's been consistent with all three pitches in the strike zone. He's thrown them anytime in the count. He's pitching in-and-out and up-and-down. That's what you teach.''

What's even more incredible is how quickly Morales has ramped up his arm strength. Until the Wrigley debut, he had only pitched more than two innings twice.

Now, three starts in, he was able to give the Sox 109 pitches, the second-highest total of his career.

"He's been outstanding,'' said outfielder Cody Ross. "He's got outstanding stuff. His curveball is really good. His split-change -- or whatever that thing is -- is filthy. He'll throw it in all counts. And he can throw 96, too. You get a combination like that, and he doesn't have that smooth delivery. It's kind of herky-jerky and it messes up guys' timing.''

"He controls his fastball at 96 mph and it's tough to do that,'' said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

But Saltalamacchia thinks it's determination as much as stuff that has made Morales so good.

"He wants to pitch, he wants to start,'' said Saltalamacchia. "He's making his case.''

Indeed he is. Beckett, whom Morales replaced, returns Saturday, but the Red Sox are going with a six-man rotation for the rest of the next week or so.

After that, there are no assurances, no guarantees that Morales will remain in the rotation.

But he sure looks like, somehow, he's here to stay. How can the Sox take him out of the rotation the way he's throwing?

"It's not on my calendar of things to do,'' said a smiling Valentine.

Cubs reach first World Series since 1945


Cubs reach first World Series since 1945

CHICAGO -- Cursed by a Billy Goat, bedeviled by Bartman and crushed by decades of disappointment, the Chicago Cubs are at long last headed back to the World Series.

Kyle Hendricks outpitched Clayton KershawAnthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras homered early and the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 Saturday night in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The drought ended when closer Aroldis Chapman got Yasiel Puig to ground into a double play, setting off a wild celebration inside Wrigley Field, outside the ballpark and all over the city.

Seeking their first crown since 1908, manager Joe Maddon's team opens the World Series at Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Indians haven't won it all since 1948 - Cleveland and Cubs have the two longest title waits in the majors.

"This city deserves it so much," Rizzo said. "We got four more big ones to go, but we're going to enjoy this. We're going to the World Series. I can't even believe that."

All-everything Javier Baez and pitcher Jon Lester shared the NLCS MVP. Baez hit .318, drove in five runs and made several sharp plays at second base. Lester, a former World Series champion in Boston, was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers.

Deemed World Series favorites since opening day, the Cubs topped the majors with 103 wins to win the NL Central, then beat the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers and won their 17th pennant. They had not earned a World Series trip since winning a doubleheader opener 4-3 at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29, 1945, to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season.

The eternal "wait till next year" is over. No more dwelling on a history of failure - the future is now.

"We're too young. We don't care about it," star slugger Kris Bryant said. "We don't look into it. This is a new team, this is a completely different time of our lives. We're enjoying it and our work's just getting started."

Hendricks pitched two-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings. Chapman took over and closed with hitless relief, then threw both arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The crowd joined in, chanting and serenading their team.

"Chicago!" shouted popular backup catcher David Ross.

The Cubs shook off back-to-back shutout losses earlier in this series by pounding the Dodgers for 23 runs to win the final three games.

And they were in no way overwhelmed by the moment on Saturday, putting aside previous frustration.

In 1945, the Billy Goat Curse supposedly began when a tavern owner wasn't allowed to bring his goat to Wrigley. In 2003, the Cubs lost the final three games of the NLCS to Florida, punctuated with a Game 6 defeat when fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball.

Even as recently as 2012, the Cubs lost 101 times.

This time, no such ill luck.

Bryant had an RBI single and scored in a two-run first. Dexter Fowler added two hits, drove in a run and scored one.

Contreras led off the fourth with a homer. Rizzo continued his resurgence with a solo drive in the fifth.

That was plenty for Hendricks, the major league ERA leader.

Hendricks left to a standing ovation after Josh Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. The only other hit Hendricks allowed was a single by Andrew Toles on the game's first pitch.

Kershaw, dominant in Game 2 shutout, gave up five runs and seven hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth. He fell to 4-7 in the postseason.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since winning in 1988.

Pitching on five days' rest, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw 30 pitches in the first. Fowler led off with a double, and Bryant's single had the crowd shaking the 102-year-old ballpark.

They had more to cheer when left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Rizzo's fly, putting runners on second and third, and Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs added a run in the second when Addison Russell doubled to deep left and scored on a two-out single by Fowler.


Maddon benched slumping right fielder Jason Heyward in favor of Albert Almora Jr.

"Kershaw's pitching, so I wanted to get one more right-handed bat in the lineup, and also with Albert I don't feel like we're losing anything on defense," Maddon said. "I know Jason's a Gold Glover, but I think Albert, given an opportunity to play often enough would be considered a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, too."

Heyward was 2 for 28 in the playoffs - 1 for 16 in the NLCS.


Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, threw out the first pitch and actor Jim Belushi delivered the "Play Ball!" call before the game. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and actor John Cusack were also in attendance. And Bulls great Scottie Pippen led the seventh-inning stretch.