By Michael Guzman/Indianapolis Indians
A.J. Morris stood atop the Coca-Cola Park mound like he has stood atop the hills of countless ballparks throughout the various levels of his still-young career. This hill, however, was located within a Triple-A diamond, and that meant a new experience for the 27-year-old Morris. It meant he was one more step up the ladder. One foot stepping into the International League, with one foot still making its way out of the Eastern League.
And he was nervous.
“I mean you try and keep yourself level-headed and kind of talk to yourself before the game and try and stay within the moment” Morris said long-after the 10,100 which attended his first career start on the road had departed. “But when you get out there for the first time you kind of get a little jittery and you kind of hear the crowd a little bit”
Morris has only been in Triple-A for two weeks, and yet, he has already seen the prominence of playing at this stage of the game. Three days after Morris’ promotion to Indianapolis, the hurler witnessed phenom Gregory Polanco receive a promotion of his own.
“(Polanco’s recall to the Pirates) was an exciting moment…it was my first time to see something like that happen,” Morris said of the 22-year-old’s quick rise from Pittsburgh’s Dominican club to the MLB Pirates. “The reality sets in that it is one level away.”
The winding path to the major leagues has been far less linear for Morris than it has been for most. Nonetheless, with the Indians, he’s crossed off another objective on his career’s to-do list, while also continuing to prove his once career-threatening injury is a thing of the past.
“The toughest battle of my career” is how Morris describes the right shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. “You have your good days and you have your bad days and it’s a big roller coaster going through it and kind of wondering are you going to play again, how’s your arm going to do when you come back.”
The uncertainty is fortunately now far removed. Just a week ago, the Triple-A rookie went the distance for the first time in his professional career, tossing a 9.0-inning, complete-game, five-hit shutout against the top-ranked Durham Bulls. Looking back, Morris credited his resilient mental toughness as much as his physical gifts for his continued improvement since 2011.
“As far as the mental process and becoming a better mental player, I don’t think there’s any better training than having to deal with [rehabbing from his setback],” Morris said.
And the right-hander has used that ability to adapt to whatever is thrown his way towards his newfound role in the starting rotation.
“My job is to eat innings; I love starting, but at the same time I love being in pressure situations (as a reliever), so it’s definitely a benefit to do both successfully,” Morris told Milb.com.
With Altoona, his role was varied from the rotation to out of the pen. With Indianapolis, he’s fine-tuning his approach as he prepares for the next and final remaining step of his career. That means first-pitch strikes, inducing grounders and aiming for a three-pitch out.
Which just so happens to fit perfectly for Morris’ pitching mold.
“I’m 100% behind it. I think that’s absolutely like the only way I can succeed as a pitcher is getting ahead and getting the early contact. I’m not a power pitcher; I’m not a heavy strikeout guy. I’m a sinker, cutter guy that gets balls on the ground and relies on my defense.”
His gameplan has been evident in the results, where, along with inducing nearly twice as many groundouts as air-outs in two starts, Morris needed less than 100 pitches to cruise to his first complete game and first career shutout.
“(I was) Just commanding the fastball to both sides of the plate,” Morris said of his success during his scoreless gem.
“Just trying to get ahead early and get some early contact and trying to make them put the ball in play and it worked out.”
Morris’ next assignment is against the IL South’s Gwinnett Braves on Tuesday, June 17. His gameplan likely won’t change from when he tossed a shutout, but it will include an improved arsenal on the hill.
“(The pitch I’m working on the most is) Probably the changeup,” he said. “It’s a pitch that has developed for me significantly this year, but it’s still coming down to trust. I think whenever I get that changeup to where I trust it completely and it’s as good as my other two pitches, I’ll be a complete pitcher.”