After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

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After fighting quitting fire, Adam Morgan one of Phillies' most reliable relievers

His team had lost the previous two nights to the Atlanta Braves. Now, it was trying to hold a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning and salvage at least one game in the series.

So Pete Mackanin went to arguably his most dependable reliever.

Back in the final days of spring training, Adam Morgan was nearly cut from the Phillies. The team needed 40-man roster space and he was on the short list of considerations for the waiver wire. Morgan survived, squeaked onto the opening day roster as a mop-up man, then, two weeks into the season, was called into the manager's office and sent to Triple A Lehigh Valley for the fifth time in two seasons.

That meeting in Mackanin's office shook Morgan. He said little. He walked out, sat in front of the locker he'd soon have to vacate and began a three-day reflection period in which he seriously considered retiring from the game at age 27 and moving on to pursue his second career choice of being a firefighter in the Atlanta area, where he was raised.

Morgan was back in Atlanta on Sunday, a different kind of fireman.

He was the guy that Mackanin called upon to hold off the Braves in the eighth inning and get the ball to Hector Neris. Neris bobbed and weaved his way to recording his 18th consecutive save since June 28. Before that, Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning to lower his ERA to 0.75 since August 2. In that span, he has pitched 24 innings in 18 games. He has given up just 14 hits and two runs while walking four and striking out 28.

Not too shabby.

"Morgan continued to pitch well, did a great job," Mackanin said after the 2-0 win. "And Neris is Neris. He makes you nervous but gets the job done."

Several months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mackanin calling on Morgan is such a tight situation. It also would have been difficult to imagine Morgan's popping fastballs at 96.3 miles per hour, as he did Sunday, and setting up hitters with a tight, late-breaking slider. The combination has enhanced his changeup.

Morgan, a lefty, was a top starting pitching prospect with the Phillies, often compared to a young Cliff Lee, until a shoulder injury set him back in 2013 and 2014. He made it back from surgery in 2015, but his fastball never returned to form. He was moved to the bullpen last year and tried to reinvent himself as a finesse pitcher. The results were spotty. When he was sent to the minors after just two appearances back in April of this season, he was at an emotional crossroads. He told team officials that he was going to need all three days as allowed by baseball's labor agreement to report to Triple A.

"And maybe more," he said.

Morgan and his wife, Rachel, have spent the season living in hotels between Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. On April 11, the night he was sent to the minors, he returned to his Philadelphia hotel and continued the reflection that started in front of his locker.

"I thought long and hard about what I was going to do, if I wanted to do the whole shuttle back and forth to Lehigh, or if I wanted to even play anymore," he said. "I'm such a simple guy that it's the little things that make me happy. Being with my family makes me happy, cutting the grass makes me happy. I'd think to myself, 'Why am I showing up to the field and I'm not happy?"

Morgan thought about returning to school and finishing the criminal justice degree he'd begun at the University of Alabama. And he thought about pursuing a lifelong calling.

"I'd always wanted to be a firefighter," he said. "They're bad dudes. They're awesome. I've always wanted to do it. I've always liked the brotherhood those guys have. It's a little like baseball, the camaraderie, the clubhouse. I thought maybe it was time."

Morgan is a Southern gentleman, an earnest, good-hearted man of faith. As he continued to contemplate his future, he prayed, read the Bible and talked with his wife, his buddies and his mom and dad back home in suburban Atlanta.

He decided to report to Lehigh Valley.

"My dad always taught me once you start something, finish it, don't quit," Morgan said. "So I decided I was going to finish the year regardless then re-evaluate. It was not right to quit in the middle of the year."

Morgan made it back to the majors in May and was soon sent back to Triple A. He could handle it. He was at peace. When the Phillies needed pitching in early June, he returned to the majors. He's been there ever since. And with each successful appearance, he's earned the trust of his manager. The guy who was almost cut in spring training is now a go-to guy for Mackanin.

"I think what we're seeing is the real deal," Mackanin said. "It's there. We’ve been counting on him to do the job and he's done it."

In the seasons immediately after surgery, Morgan's fastball hovered around 90 mph. He has hit 97 often over the last couple of months. Morgan believes the jump in velocity is a result of his becoming more accustomed to a reliever's routine. It allows him to do more long-tossing during workouts and that has improved his arm strength. He has also become more confident. That has resulted in his letting the ball go with more conviction instead of choking it as a pitcher afraid of making a mistake would. Hitters must be ready for that extra velocity or get beaten by it, so it has made the rest of Morgan's pitches better.

An improved slider has also played a huge role in Morgan's turnaround. He knew he needed to sharpen the pitch. He and pitching coach Bob McClure talked about a number of different grips and Morgan began to experiment. Finally, as he played catch in the outfield one day with fellow pitcher Luis Garcia, another reliever who has shown signs of finally putting it together, Morgan found a grip that worked.

"Louie was like, 'Wow,' " Morgan said.

Morgan continued to work on the new slider. It's tighter and breaks later than his old one. It has become a weapon.

"His fastball is better and he's throwing an invisible slider," Mackanin said.

There has been an intangible quality to Morgan's improvement, as well. Some of it is as simple as what McClure says: It often takes a pitcher two or three years before he truly believes he can succeed in the majors, two or three years to relax and let his natural abilities shine. It's part of the mental game of baseball, and Morgan has clearly made strides there.

"Things started to turn when I started to enjoy the game," he said. "I stopped putting pressure on myself because I knew this could be my last year. I was like, 'If this is it, I'm going to enjoy it.' Even in Triple A. We had a good group of guys. I was going to cheer for them and let the chips fall where they may.

"I stopped putting my worth on my stat sheet. That's where I lost sight of how much I enjoyed the game. As a reliever, one bad outing can mess up your stats so I stopped looking at it.

"I focused on my strengths instead of the hitter's weakness. I think I was tired of everybody telling me what my strengths were, like telling me how to pitch to be successful. People were trying to help me, but I think I just got exhausted with being a people pleaser and not taking care of myself and doing what I see as the right thing. I never lost confidence in my fastball even after surgery when it was 88 or 90. I feel like I'm pitching to my strengths. I don’t have to throw a curveball to this guy because he's a crappy curveball hitter. I can get him out different ways."

Morgan has gone from a waiver consideration to "for me, a definite," as far as being in the Phillies' bullpen plans for next season, Mackanin said.

But Morgan is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't think this is a fluke," he said. "But I know I have to keep showing it. You have to prove it every day up here. I don't think you can ever get comfortable in the big leagues. You always have to have that edge.

"Even though the season is coming to a close, I don’t want it to end. I have to keep doing my routine, my shoulder work, my long-toss. I'm still working, trying to get better."

Funny how things work out. In April, Adam Morgan was thinking about the end. Along the way, he found a new beginning.

"Wow," he said, exhaling. "It's just emotional even thinking about quitting."

Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

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Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta earlier this week.

That's probably going to be the extent of their pitching additions for now.

Jerad Eickhoff is out until at least May with a strained right lat muscle and that creates a sizable hole in the Phillies rotation.

The hole is likely to be filled internally, according to general manager Matt Klentak. The team is not likely to make a run at Alex Cobb, who remains on the free-agent market.

"I doubt it," Klentak said when asked if he would look outside the organization to fill Eickhoff's spot. "I don't think we have to. I think a lot of our guys have shown very well in camp. They have gotten their pitch counts up, they're getting to the point of being fully stretched out.

"More than anything, I think we're going to have some tough decisions on figuring out who is in the rotation, who is in the bullpen, who goes into the Triple-A rotation, who goes into the Double-A rotation. We've got a lot of tough decisions to make on that front, but I don't think we're in a position where we have to go outside. We have a lot of candidates to take the ball at the big league level so we'll be fine."

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. Arrieta will be in the rotation, though he might need an extra week or so to get ready. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta are likely to hold down spots. That leaves Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Tom Eshelman in the running for the final spot in the five-man rotation. Eshelman, strike-thrower extraordinaire, was the Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year last year and projects to be in Philadelphia before long. However, it might not be at the outset of the season because he is not on the 40-man roster. Neither is Hutchison.

The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 11 so they could employ some creative roster construction until then. They could go with four starters and an extra reliever or bench man. Or they could bring an extra starter and "piggyback" him with Arrieta, a move that would allow Arrieta to make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season.

"There's a decent chance we open the season with somewhat of a non-traditional 25-man roster, not because we're trying to be cute but because we don't need the fifth starter until the 11th," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."

The Phillies made one transaction on Friday. They added utility man Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster. He had a provision in his minor-league contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't on the 40-man roster by March 15. Florimon is a candidate for a spot on the Phillies' bench. The move doesn't guarantee that Florimon will win a spot, but it gives the team more time to evaluate him. To make room for Florimon, the Phillies designated infielder Eliezer Alvarez for assignment.

Florimon homered in the Phillies' 6-4 loss to Toronto in Clearwater Friday. Cam Rupp and Cesar Hernandez also homered. Velasquez gave up five hits and a run in 2⅔ innings. He struck out five.

In Lakeland, Pivetta allowed two runs over five innings as the Phils and Tigers played to a 6-6 tie. J.P. Crawford and Ryan Flaherty both homered.

Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

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Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies' pitching staff has suffered a setback.

Jerad Eickhoff, projected as a member of the season-opening starting rotation, has been shut down with a strained right lat muscle, the area behind his shoulder. He will open the season on the disabled list and be sidelined into May, based on the team's six- to eight-week timetable for treatment and recovery.

Eickhoff, 27, spent time on the disabled list with a similar injury last season. That injury was technically called an upper back strain.

Manager Gabe Kapler said Eickhoff injured himself on one of the final pitches he threw during his last start.

Eickhoff led the Phillies' staff in ERA (3.65) while making 33 starts in 2016. He was limited to 24 starts and had a 4.71 ERA last year while making two trips to the DL. His second trip to the DL, which ended his season, was for a nerve irritation in his right hand. Eickhoff is in Philadelphia being checked by doctors.

"We want to ensure, and we're pretty confident, that it's not related in any way to the (nerve) stuff he was dealing with last year," manager Gabe Kapler said.

Kapler added, "It's a mild lat strain. There might be a blessing in disguise here. We're always thinking about keeping guys healthy and strong and limiting their total innings count. Those are things that are always on our mind so it's possible the innings are limited on the front end and then in September, October, he's strong and healthy and prepared to go through a full season."

With Eickhoff down, the Phillies suddenly have some openings in their rotation. Jake Arrieta, who signed with the Phillies on Monday, believes he can be ready for the first week of the season, but nothing is official. Aaron Nola will be the opening day starter and Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are good bets to be in the rotation. The final spot could go to Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr. or Tom Eshelman.

It is not known whether the Phillies would pursue free agent Alex Cobb. On Monday, general manager Matt Klentak said his offseason moves were likely complete.