Seattle Mariners

Loss leaves Morrow at crossroads

They have never known quite what they had in Brandon Morrow – other than a marvelous power arm – but the Seattle Mariners have just about decided what they don’t have.

They don’t have a big-league starting pitcher. Not now, not here, not close.

Trying to make Morrow their fourth starter while staying in an American League West that’s up for grabs, the transition cost the Mariners a game Friday, when Texas beat them – and Morrow – 6-4.

“I don’t know what to make of that one,” Morrow said of the game. “I had four solid innings when I was efficient with my pitches, and one inning where they got the big hit.”

That hit was Michael Young’s three-run home run in the third inning, which erased a 2-1 Seattle lead and put the Mariners behind for good. Worse than the home run were the two walks that preceded it.

“The key to this ballgame was the two walks and the home run, especially after we came out and scored two runs,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “ It changed the momentum.

“With a club like this that has power up and down the lineup, you just don’t feel safe walking guys. You can get hurt by that.”

Walks have plagued Morrow since he moved to the rotation, just as they troubled him when trying to close in April. In 272/3 innings as a starter, he has allowed 31 hits and 17 walks – and 48 baserunners in less than 28 innings will beat you more often than not.

The Mariners never went quietly, piling up 11 hits to the Rangers’ nine, but Seattle couldn’t hit one out of the ballpark and Texas hitters did that three times.

Ken Griffey Jr. had three hits, including the 515th double of his career – that ties Joe Cronin for 38th place on the all-time list. And among the game highlights was Junior scoring all the way from first base in the first inning on a Franklin Gutierrez double.

When he got to the dugout, teammates began fanning him with towels.

That provided a 2-0 lead, and was one of the last feel-good moments for a Safeco Field crowd of 34,874. What they saw was Morrow go five innings and allow four runs on six hits and four walks.

What they saw might have been a start that will force Seattle to weigh its options once again – and the team has several. Why did Morrow come out after five innings and only 74 pitches?

“I’m not sure,” Morrow said.

Wakamatsu was.

“He kept walking guys and we had to get him out of there,” he said.

Morrow is a 24-year-old right-hander who has made 116 big-league relief appearances over a career that began in 2007. And he’s made 11 starts, six of those since June 13.

In them, he has pitched more than five innings just once – last week in Boston, when he went six – and hasn’t won, going 0-1 with a 4.56 earned-run average.

“We’ve seen it in different starts this year, he gets a tendency to lose it for a little bit,” Wakamatsu said. “We had a discussion on the bench trying to figure out what causes that because you see some awfully good pitches in between those lapses.

Few doubt that the pitcher who opened the year as Seattle’s closer can pitch in the majors. As a starting pitcher, however, he’s little more than an apprentice getting on-the-job instruction.

The Mariners have options to starting Morrow in the big leagues.

Ryan Rowland-Smith, for instance, is pitching well in Tacoma and has more experience than Morrow – he made 12 starts for Seattle last season, went 3-2 with a 3.50 ERA.

Garrett Olson, who pitched a scoreless inning out of the bullpen, has made eight starts this season, 41 in his career. And Jason Vargas, sent to the Rainiers because the team doesn’t need a fifth starter until July 25, is another potential replacement.

The bottom line is winning, and in Morrow’s six starts, the Mariners are 1-5. In a division where they’re now 41/2 games behind Texas, those results just won’t fly.

The answer may lie in Morrow’s off-speed pitches and his ability to throw them for strikes. Against Texas, however, his change-up was in-and-out – and he never threw a curve.

“He felt like he just didn’t have a feel for it. He felt like it just spun out of his hand,” Wakamatsu said. “When he throws a good one, it’s an awfully good pitch. If he can harness that, I think you’re going to see a more complete pitcher.”

Morrow tried, and for much of the night it worked.

“I was throwing my off-speed pitches for strikes, keeping my fastball on the corner for the most part, then I started missing in the third inning,” he said.

“After I walked (Omar) Vizquel, I lost command to (Ian) Kinsler. I was missing with everything. I threw sliders down and fastballs up.”

After walking Kinsler, he served up Young’s three-run shot.

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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