Cubs

Cubs counting on new closer Brandon Morrow to dance amid the pressure

MESA, Ariz. – The last time Brandon Morrow was a closer was 10 years ago.

It’s that time gap, not his pitching ability, that raises questions about whether the Cubs have found a real, live closer to take the place of the departed Wade Davis.

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There are two ways of looking at this.

Dodgers pitcher Brandon Morrow throws against the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series last year. He signed with the Cubs in the offseason. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The sunshiny view: It’s not as if Morrow is being asked to be a policeman after 10 years as a plumber. He’ll still be doing the same thing he has always done. One moment the ball will be in his hand, and the next it will leave his hand at a high rate of speed. Simple, right?

The dark-and-stormy-night view: He’ll be doing it in the ninth inning, an inning that weighs more than all the others. He’ll still be a policeman, but now he’ll be a hostage negotiator.

If he’s as unconcerned on the mound as he was talking about his new role Wednesday, he’ll be fine.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve kind of seen it all,’’ he said. “I’ve got a much lower heart rate than I used to.’’

When Morrow was 23, the Mariners asked him to be their closer. He went from competing for a spot as a starter to closing games. That’s not the way you draw it up, but it would serve as perfect foreshadowing for a career path that has meandered.

“Closing at a young age, I probably wasn’t necessarily prepared for that as far as command and ability to go out on a daily basis and really compete,’’ he said. “The stuff was there, and I was getting by on that mainly, but I consider myself a much better pitcher now. All the experience over the last 10 years I think has prepared me well.’’

He had 10 saves in 2008, split time between starting and closing the next season and became a starter with the Blue Jays after Seattle traded him in December 2009. When the Cubs saw him with the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series last season, he was shutting them down as a setup man.

“I plan on being really good anytime I’m out there,’’ he said. “I don’t think it really matters at what point. Obviously, the ninth inning is really important mentally for the team. Blown saves are tough mentally. If you lose a game in the third, it’s not the same as when you lose a game in the ninth. Having someone that can be consistent in that role is important.’’

He saw Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen mow through hitters last season. If he can’t duplicate Jansen’s pitching ability — few can — he can at least take a swing at Jansen’s ability to ignore everything around him in the ninth inning. Blissful ignorance is one of the secrets to being a successful closer.

“I think just putting the blinders up, just treating it like a different inning,’’ Morrow said. “I was kind of treating it like I was pitching in the ninth last year. From a mindset point of view, we had Kenley behind me, and if you could get through the eighth, the game’s basically over. He’s one of the best. I was just kind of thinking, hey, if I close out the eighth, we’re going to have Kenley in there and finish it off.’’

Talent has never been an issue with Morrow. Cubs manager Joe Maddon remembers the right-hander beating his Rays team with a 17-strikeout one-hitter in 2010. He remembers it the way he might remember a large kidney stone.

“I had never seen anything so dominant in my life,’’ he said.

Now it’s a matter of seeing if Morrow can handle the pressure of being a closer.

“I don’t think I should have any issues,’’ he said. “If there are problems, it’s because I’m not locating pitches at the time. I don’t think mentally it will be too big for me. I think I’ve come a long way. I’m not a really super-intense person, but I can keep my intensity level above the game (and make sure) the situation isn’t too big. I think I do a good job of minimizing that.’’

Maddon said he wants to give Morrow lots of rest, especially early in the season, hoping he’ll be fresher later in the season. He pitched in all seven World Series games last year and struggled, giving up five earned runs in 5.1 innings.

He’s used to stress. He’s not used to the stress that will come with being the Cubs closer. How he deals with it could mean everything.

For relief, he can look to his fellow relievers. Last year, they celebrated a big play by dancing in the bullpen. Will he?

“We’ll see,’’ he said. “I might be the awkward one in the corner bobbing my head.’’

People aren’t expecting Riverdance, Brandon. However, they might be expecting Mariano Rivera.