The Red Sox may have found something here.
After the Red Sox' 1-0 loss to the Mariners (a delicious pitchers' duel that was punctuated by a ball escaping a squeeze of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's glove -- to get a complete recap, click here), Sox manager Bobby Valentine tried to temper some of the excitement surrounding Franklin Morales.
“Well, I don’t think anyone can pitch like this all season but he’s pitched extremely, extremely well," Valentine told reporters regarding his lefty.
When more time has passed and we can fully digest Valentine's body of work, Thursday night might offer a reminder for one of his greatest accomplishments -- the decision to make Morales a starter. It was, after all, much more than just the left-hander's third start of the season (and 18th of his career), but the seven-inning outing also marked the night Morales went head-to-head with one of the best pitchers in the game and didn't flinch.
Felix Hernandez went nine innings, didn't allow a run and struck out 13 (with every Red Sox starter except Mike Aviles fanning at least once), yet Morales will still remain in the conversation when bleary-eyed water cooler talk kicks off on Friday morning. That's saying something.
"He's got great stuff," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said regarding Morales. "He's got power stuff. He throws strikes. His pickoff move's great. He holds runners well. He's been awesome for us."
On the surface, Morales is just filling in. After all, he hadn't lived the life of a starter since April 21, 2009, until need (created by Josh Beckett's shoulder inflammation) moved him out of the Red Sox' bullpen earlier this month. And during that previous go-round as a starting pitcher, it wasn't exactly like he had set the world on fire, totaling a 5-4 mark with a 4.46 ERA, striking out 44 and walking 32 while never pitching more than six innings in 15 tries.
But this has time around has been tough to ignore.
In three starts now, Morales has totaled a 2.06 ERA, fanning 24 while walking just three in 18 innings. Opponents are also hitting .200 with no homers during the stretch. The strikeout total is the third-best among all starters in baseball over the 12 days, with only three pitchers throwing more than the 73 fastballs of at least 95 mph that Morales has offered.
More? Morales has gotten 40 swings and misses during his three starts, the third-most of any starter in baseball over that span.
He throws hard. He offers two solid secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup. And he pitches with confidence, which is exemplified by the pace at which he pitches.
"Fastball control at 96, it's just tough to do that," Saltalamacchia told reporters. "He's controlling 96 on both sides of the plate, using his split, and mixing in that curveball. It's tough to hit with a short arm action throwing that hard to both sides of the plate. He can get the ball up a little, which it's tough to catch up to that.
"He was going from throwing one inning, maybe two, to Toronto, where he threw four, and all of a sudden, he's throwing seven innings. He wants to pitch, he wants to start, so he's putting up his case. He's doing a great job."
When all the predetermined starters are healthy and back in the rotation, the conversation regarding Morales' role could get sticky. Realistically, all it will take is one uneven outing and Morales might be labeled as nothing more than a fill-in. But, right now, it's hard to envision the Red Sox not continuing to see if they've made the kind of discovery all major league teams dream of.
He's a 26-year-old who is in his first year of arbitration-eligibility, won't reach free agency until after the 2014 season and cost merely cash to pry away from Colorado. Perhaps it's just a Vaughn Eshelman flash in the pan. But maybe it's a discovery -- and an outing -- that will be remembered for months (and maybe years) to come.
Here are a few more things we learned Thursday at Safeco Field:
MIDDLEBROOKS HAS HIT A BUMP IN THE ROAD
Will Middlebrooks has been forced to make his biggest adjustment as a major leaguer at a most inopportune time.
Since Kevin Youkilis left town, leaving the 23-year-old as the Red Sox' everyday third baseman, Middlebrooks is just 1-for-15 with four strikeouts and no walks. Against Hernandez he struck out twice and offered two weak pop-ups to third base and second base, respectively, in his other pair of at-bats.
The most disappointing plate appearance came in the ninth inning when, with runners on first and second and Hernandez running on fumes at 127 pitches, Middlebrooks offered at the first pitch he saw -- a 92 mph cutter down the middle of the plate -- which was lofted weakly into shallow center field for the frame's final out.
It marks the first time in his first 45 major league games that Middlebrooks has gone three straight games without coming away with at least one hit.
GONZALEZ HAS FOUND SOME CONFIDENCE
The at-bat before Middlebrooks' final pop-up, Adrian Gonzalez offered a fairly memorable plate appearance. It ended up in the scorebook as nothing more than a fly ball out to center field, but in reality it was much more.
With runners on first and second, the score tied and one out in the ninth, Gonzalez worked a 3-0 count against a tiring Hernandez. The Sox' first baseman proceeded to take his chances on a 92 mph fastball just off the outside part of the plate, swinging and missing. It marked the third time this season he had taken advantage of the green light on 3-and-0, and 18th total since the beginning of 2008.
As had been the case in all but one of his previous 17 3-and-0 swings, Gonzalez might not have come away with a hit, but he would go on to have the kind of at-bat that offers encouragement.
Gonzalez proceeded to foul off Hernandez' next four pitches before getting his perfect offering -- a 93 mph fastball out over the middle the plate. The Sox' No. 5 hitter rocketed a ball that easily would have clanged off the Fenway Park left field wall, but, in Safeco Park, resulted in a 380-foot out.
"He made a good pitch 3-0, made a good pitch 3-1. You get to 3-2, you don’t know if he’s going to go changeup or curveball or if he’s going to stay with his fastball," Gonzalez told reporters. "You can’t sell out all the way on the fastball. You know, he kept throwing good pitches -- good fastballs middle-away. He just kept spotting that fastball good so he left one a little more over the plate. I was able to hit it well. I hit it good, just not great. … It's probably off the wall in a lot of parks."
The good news for Gonzalez is that with his single earlier in the game, he is currently riding a nine-game hit streak. Over the span the first baseman has totaled a .351 batting average and OPS of .886. All steps in the right direction.
TWO FORGETTABLE MOMENTS FOR TWO POTENTIAL ALL-STARS
Both Scott Atchison and Saltalamacchia have had perhaps the best first halves of their careers, putting each in consideration to make the American League All-Star team. Thursday, however, wasn't part of the highlight reel.
Atchison came on to pitch the ninth inning, and, after retiring his first batter, allowed a double to Casper Wells. He proceeded to intentionally walk Justin Smoak before letting John Jaso rifle a single into right field. The liner was scooped up by right fielder Cody Ross, who threw home in what appeared to be plenty of time to beat Wells.
But Saltalamacchia's sweep tag of the Seattle baserunner, which would indeed have been in time, popped out of the catcher's glove. It handed the Red Sox the loss, and Atchison just his seventh earned run of the season.
"Cody got the ball in good and everything. It didn’t work out," Atchison told reporters. "Whatever. A couple of bad pitches that inning. It doesn’t take long when you make a couple of mistakes."
"The ball was hit kind of off the end of the bat to right. I knew Cody was going to make a great throw and he did. It was right on the money," Saltalamacchia explained to reporters. "I've just got to do a better job of holding onto it in a big situation like that.
"It was a good throw, low, on line," he added. "I was just trying to stay low with it. As the ball was coming closer, I tried to block the plate, to make sure he doesn't get it. And I think as I was doing it, I was swiping in, and I think it just rattled around in my glove."
BARD TAKES STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Besides Atchison, the Red Sox' bullpen continued to impress, with Andrew Miller needing just seven pitches to complete a perfect eighth inning. The corps still has far and away the best combined ERA of any relieving group in baseball since May 1 (2.22).
But it's still worth checking on how it potentially could get even better.
A potential weapon down the road, Daniel Bard, continues his way back to the form of 2009-11. He explained how things are progressing in his stint with Triple-A Pawtucket, admitting that he had initially been distracted by the rush to return to the major leagues in his initial Triple-A outings.
"That's been my main focus, to take my focus off of trying to get back to Boston because that's pretty counterproductive," he said. "If I go out there every time I pitch and all I'm thinking is, 'OK, pitch good so I can be back with the big league team,' that's not going to work. I think that's actually what happened in some of my not-so-good outings. I've realized my focus has to be to get better every day and be the best pitcher for this team, right now, in Pawtucket, that I can be. If I can take care of that, the rest will take care of itself."
Bard is coming off of perhaps his best outing since joining the PawSox, pitching a flawless inning against the Knights while striking out one.
The righty has totaled eight appearances with the PawSox, allowing seven runs over 11 innings, striking out 15 and walking five.
Bard, who sat between 94-96 mph Wednesday night, explained that he has started throwing more in between appearances, a tactic he stopped early in his rookie year with the Red Sox.
"Something I've gotten back to from more than just a physical standpoint is back in '09, my rookie year, I would never go more than two days without getting off a mound," Bard said. "Whether that was in a game, or if I didn't pitch the next day I would get off the mound for what might be 10 or 15 pitches off the mound just to repeat it and just to get that feeling, so you're not going too far in between. You're repeating and having that feeling consistently.
"I stopped doing it in 2010 because I was getting used so much and I was locked in so I didn't feel like I needed it. I was trying to save my bullets and rest my arm, too. It helped me a lot in '09. I think my command got better each year in '09, '10 and '11. I think that was a big part of it and I've gotten away from it, more just because I was trying to save bullets. So that's something we're going back to now. We're not going to let two days go by without getting on a mound one way or another."
As for his latest outing, Bard said he not only came away with positive results, but a command on the mound that had been lacking.
"The biggest thing was, mentally, I felt like I was in charge out there," he explained. "I felt that at times since I’ve gotten down here, but last night was definitely the best. It’s not that my stuff was any better than it has been, but I felt like I was in control.
“It’s a good feeling. I was always told, ‘Fake it until you make it,’ so even when results and stuff aren’t going well, you’ve got to act like they are because that’s the only way you’re going to ... Not that it’s completely faking it. I obviously have a lot of success I can look back on not too far in the past. [Wednesday] night, I felt good."