TORONTO — Among all the talented young pitchers the Toronto Blue Jays have, no one has an arm as electric as Brandon Morrow. The six-foot-three right-hander has the stuff to overpower and dominate, which is exactly what he did Monday night in a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Morrow took a little bit off his velocity to gain more control and carried a no-hitter into the sixth, allowing just a run on three hits and two walks over seven innings versus the struggling American League East leaders to open a crucial stretch for his team.
“Leading up to this game everybody’s been throwing lights out and I think everybody kind of feeds off that,” said Morrow. “You see how Shaun (Marcum) and Ricky (Romero) are having their success, watching them throw to spots and mix up counts and pitches, and I’m still working on my game and on what works best.
“I’m starting to think hitting my spot works better than throwing it by a guy.”
The Blue Jays, who won their fourth straight and improved to 31-22 before a disappointing crowd of 11,335, play the Rays (34-18) twice more at home before hosting the New York Yankees for three. After that it’s off to St. Petersburg, Fla., for three more versus the Rays. Interleague play then resumes for Toronto with some of the best the National League has to offer, including Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Francisco.
That will carry the Blue Jays into July and their results over the coming month will go a long way in determining how much stock to put into their spring-time surge.
“It’s going to say something,” manager Cito Gaston conceded before the game. “If you play bad, you can play yourself right out of it. If you play good, you can play yourself right into it. We’ll know one way or the other once it’s said and done.”
Monday’s victory was a great start, especially since the Blue Jays came in a combined 2-7 versus the Rays and Boston Red Sox, two of their primary rivals, this season. Tampa has lost six of its last eight.
A brilliant Morrow (4-4) was backed by Adam Lind’s two-run homer in the first off Matt Garza (5-4), who had been a Blue Jays nemesis but lost to them for the second time this season. Lind’s homer pushed the Jays’ club record homer total for a single month to 54.
A resurgent Aaron Hill added an RBI single in the fifth to make it 3-0. That run proved pivotal when the Rays scored a pair in the eighth on B.J. Upton’s RBI triple and Willy Aybar’s run-scoring groundout.
Shawn Camp cleaned up Scott Downs’ problems in the eighth, and Kevin Gregg pitched the ninth for his 14th save, escaping unscathed after allowing a one-out triple to Evan Longoria. He was cut down at the plate by shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who fielded a sharp grounder by John Jaso.
“It got pretty exciting,” said Lind. “It’s a win in the division, that’s the most important thing. Any time you have a win like that it’s great vibes in the clubhouse.”
It was Morrow who set the tone.
Like many young power pitchers, the 25-year-old at times has trouble harnessing his repertoire, but against the Rays he threw strikes, worked quickly and commanded the strike zone after consciously deciding to take something off.
He effectively mixed in a strong curve and changeup to go along with a fastball that occasionally touched 96 miles per hour, but sat mostly around 92 or 93. He struck out just one, and rather than try to blow away the Rays, he exploited their aggressiveness by inducing weak contact and letting his defence do the rest.
“I think out of my last five outings, the times I’ve backed off a little and really focused on keeping the ball down, keeping it to the corners, I’ve pitched better,” said Morrow. “I’ve calmed myself down and relaxed and made my pitches instead of overthrowing and trying to strike everybody out.”
The outing was by far Morrow’s best since joining the Blue Jays in a December trade that sent reliever Brandon League and a prospect to Seattle. Though he had pitched in parts of three big-league seasons prior to this one, Monday’s start was just the 26th of his career.
The Blue Jays strongly believe he’s just scratching the surface.
“I’ve had better stuff, meaning a nastier slider or a better fastball,” Morrow said. “But I think this is probably my best game in terms of making pitches, not trying to throw that nasty curveball and instead just flipping it in for a strike.”
Notes: The Blue Jays optioned reliever Josh Roenicke to triple-A Las Vegas after the game to make room for Brian Tallet, who will be activated from the disabled list to start Tuesday’s game versus Tampa Bay. ... Gaston remained mum on his plans for the No. 5 slot in the rotation beyond Tuesday, but pitching coach Bruce Walton did say the team intends to stay with a five-man rotation rather than using off-days to go with four men. “When we lined things up before the season we told ourselves if there was an opportunity to give guys rest because of days off, we would,” said Walton. “We’ve done it so far, so we’re going to stay with it.” That means the Jays will need a fifth starter again June 8 at Tampa Bay, and there are indications it will be Jesse Litsch. The right-hander, coming back from elbow surgery, can be activated from the 60-day DL on Friday. ... 2B Jarrett Hoffpauir (Las Vegas), RHP Chad Jenkins (single-A Lansing) and C J.P. Arencibia (Vegas) are the Blue Jays’ minor-league stars of the weekend. Hoffpauir hit for his second cycle of the season Friday, Jenkins pitched six scoreless innings for his fourth win, while Arencibia hit his eighth homer of the year. ... Top Jays prospect Kyle Drabek (7-4) threw eight scoreless innings Monday in double-A New Hampshire’s 3-0 win over Trenton. He allowed four hits, walked one and struck out four.