ANAHEIM - When the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Brandon Morrow 29 months ago, they knew they were getting a pitcher with a high ceiling.
Yet, having potential and realizing it are two very different things. Early in this 2012 season, Morrow is experiencing a period of significant personal growth as he climbs ever closer to that ceiling.
In the past few weeks, including Thursday’s masterful three-hit, complete-game 5-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Angels, Morrow’s growth as a pitcher has been obvious.
Using all the weapons in his arsenal, some power here, some guile there, Morrow allowed two singles and a double. Nothing more. He faced one over the minimum 27 batters and needed just 102 pitches to finish the job.
“My fastball command was really what did it for me,” Morrow said. “That’s probably the best I’ve ever been with that. I felt like I could have nailed that down and away strike with my eyes closed tonight.”
Morrow said he stayed with a diet of fastballs and sliders for the most part.
“I was able to dial up the fastball and then dial it down. I pretty much put it where I wanted every time. I felt like I could have just thrown all fastballs tonight the way I was locating it.”
What Jays manager John Farrell finds fascinating about Morrow’s development is that his starter has just scratched the surface of his talent.
“While Brandon has made a lot of strides in the last two years, there’s still another good portion of improvement to come with his own knowledge of himself as a pitcher,” Farrell said before Thursday’s game.
With the Angels clubhouse still buzzing about Jered Weaver’s no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins Wednesday, L.A. starter Dan Haren wiped out the first six Toronto batters faced Thursday before the Jays erupted for three runs in the third inning.
Starting with Jerome Williams, who did not give up a hit in the last six innings of his complete-game win Tuesday, and including Weaver’s no-hitter Wednesday and Haren’s first two innings Thursday, the Angels went 17 1/3 innings without allowing a base hit.
That came apart in a big way in the top of the third Thursday when Brett Lawrie led off with a single up the middle, followed by a Colby Rasmus bunt single and then J.P. Arencibia’s first-pitch, three-run homer to left. Kelly Johnson made it four straight hits before things went quiet again.
Meanwhile, Morrow gave up a first-inning leadoff single to Mike Trout and then not another until Trout came up leading off in the fourth. Both times, Trout was erased on double plays started by third baseman Lawrie. Through the entire 2011 season, Morrow drew only one groundball double play. He already has five in 2012.
“I like it,” Morrow said with a smile. “Two-for-one, that’s the way to go. I’ll take that over throwing 12 pitches to strike somebody out anytime.”
Economizing on his pitch count is something relatively new for Morrow. He liked that part of his game, too.
“I’ve thrown 102 pitches in four innings before but never in a complete game. When you’ve got an early lead and your pitch count is low like that, you can start thinking about a complete game,” he said.
All spring, Farrell talked about Morrow’s potential and his need to command his fastball as a key to getting deeper into games to save the bullpen.
“I think he’s recognizing game situations,” Farrell said, in analyzing the progress being made by Morrow this season.
“He’s got a more consistent feel for his secondary pitches. He’s always had that wipeout slider and when he’s got his good velocity, that’s where you see the strikeouts come, is with that slider.
“The last two starts have been powerful. He’s throwing a lot of strikes.”
Morrow, in the early going, has been susceptible to the home run ball, allowing seven already this season. But even that source of irritation is drying up.
“The home runs have come on fastballs up,” Farrell said. “He generates a lot of that power because of the velocity. When he’s down in the strike zone, he eliminates a lot of those. The biggest key is to use his breaking ball effectively.”
Morrow seems to be grasping the “less is more” theory of pitching.
“I think it’s what he found last year: ‘What is the right effort level?’ ” Farrell said. “At 100%, is that where you get a lot of foul balls and the pitch count gets elevated?
“His start in Kansas City (one run over 6.2 innings) might have been the best combination (until Thursday). He pitched to contact, got deep into the game but then when he got into a tight spot, he could go to that second gear and put a hitter away.”
The Jays made it 5-0 in the sixth on a two-run error by Angels third baseman Mark Trumbo. With runners at first and second, Edwin Encarnacion hit a routine grounder that Trumbo fielded then threw wildly at first. Both Johnson and Escobar scored on the play.
Trumbo led off the ninth with L.A.’s third hit, a double down the left field line. But Morrow bore down and got the next three hitters, the last two with strikeouts.