First Pitch: Sox find a winner in Morales

First Pitch: Sox find a winner in Morales
June 29, 2012, 12:11 pm
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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.