Cubs’ Brandon Morrow isn’t the closer he was when he last did the job — in 2009
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There were balloons in the Cubs’ clubhouse before the series opener Monday against the Dodgers, but they weren’t in celebration of reliever Steve Cishek’s 32nd birthday. No, these were for closer Brandon Morrow — a blue ‘‘1’’ and a blue ‘‘0,’’ tied with string to the back of his chair, in honor of his 10 years of major-league service time.
Morrow reached the milestone during the Cubs’ just-completed road trip. It was Cishek, actually, who arranged for the tribute.
Happy 10 years to Morrow, who now is fully vested in the MLB players’ pension program.
And what a happy first season it has been for the Cubs with the 33-year-old right-hander at the back of their bullpen. Morrow entered play Monday 16-for-17 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA as he prepared for the possibility of facing the Dodgers — for whom he starred in a 2017 run to the World Series — at Wrigley Field.
‘‘I love just the way he goes about it,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘He’s very focused. And I use the word ‘calm’ a lot, but that’s what I look for, [and] his emotions are under control.
‘‘With some good health — man, that could last awhile.’’
Calm? That wasn’t the case during Morrow’s last crack at being a big-league closer. Last awhile? That wasn’t the case, either.
Morrow subbed for Mariners closer J.J. Putz for a brief stretch of games in 2008 and was the team’s closer to begin the 2009 season. An injury cut that experiment short, and before long Morrow was being groomed as a starter. Fast-forward from there to 2017, when he had a 0.916 WHIP as the Dodgers’ setup man and flummoxed the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
Other than a pair of saves converted last season, Morrow is back in the closer’s role for the first time in nine years. Things are a whole lot different for him on the mound than they were back then.
‘‘I’ve seen a few clips from back then, and it’s kind of funny to see the mechanics and what kind of pitcher I was,’’ he said. ‘‘I definitely wasn’t a strike-thrower. I was probably a heart-attack guy every time I went out there.’’
Morrow laughs at the idea that he dared to try as a young pitcher a task he has grown into so methodically. Could he have been a closer again before now? Judging by his scoreless appearances in all five games against the Cubs last October, the answer probably is yes. But he is better by leaps and bounds at 33 than he was at 24 — and, he thinks, better than he was in his lone season with the Dodgers.
‘‘Obviously, I got to watch [closer] Kenley [Jansen] a lot last year,’’ Morrow said. ‘‘I really like the way he goes about it. He has a very low heart rate, which is the way I try to keep it. I try not to pump myself up or get more excited for the inning than need be, so I can make decisions and compute situations better.’’
That approach brings another reliever to mind: Wade Davis, the Cubs’ unflappable closer in 2017. More than one Cubs teammate has noted the similarities between Davis and Morrow.
‘‘I used to get myself in a lot of trouble with walks and stuff like that, and that really wears on you mentally,’’ Morrow said. ‘‘Now, when things don’t go my way, it’s almost like I don’t even care — or, at least, I make it look that way. It’s like there’s a part of you where you trick yourself or just make yourself forget, you know?’’
Morrow spent a few years — in Toronto, in San Diego — as a nearly forgotten pitcher. But now he’s back. Now he’s better than ever.
Ten years of service time? It might be just the start of something big.