Phillies

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."

Odubel Herrera is making good on his 'bet on me' prophesy

Odubel Herrera is making good on his 'bet on me' prophesy

Odubel Herrera wasn’t messing around when he said, “Bet on me,” as he showed signs of breaking out of a lengthy slump last week.

Since Herrera uttered those words, the Phillies are 4-2 and Herrera has delivered 11 hits, including five homers, and seven RBIs. He had his fourth multi-hit game in the span Wednesday and provided the big blow — a booming, go-ahead homer off the scoreboard in right in the seventh inning — to key a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Herrera's bat is ablaze and if you did bet on him — as he urged — you’re cashing checks.

“When I told you that you should bet on me, I meant it, because I knew that I was getting close to being my regular self and I'm going to keep working to stay positive and stay doing what I'm doing,” Herrera said.

The slump took Herrera from an NL-best .361 batting average on May 17 to .283 in 23 games.

Wednesday’s single-double-homer performance left him at .299 and had people comparing him to Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.

Starting pitcher Jake Arrieta compared Herrera to Vladimir Guerrero for the way he can square up any pitch.

Manager Gabe Kapler used Ichiro Suzuki as a comp.

“They’re different style hitters, but not that different, though,” Kapler said. “It doesn’t matter where the baseball is. They have unique bat-to-ball skills.”

Herrera’s eyes lit up when he heard Kapler’s Ichiro comp.

“It's amazing to hear that because Ichiro is a legend,” Herrera said. “To be compared to someone like him is an honor. It's great.”

Herrera is not a legend, but he's colorful and his confidence is well established.

“I’m coming,” he said with a laugh. “I’m coming.”

Herrera pounded a go-ahead homer to right off Sam Tuivailala in the seventh, a half-inning after the Cardinals had tied the game on Yadier Molina’s two-run homer against Arrieta. The bullpen made the lead stand up (see game recap).

Herrera crushed the ball. It left the park in the blink of an eye at 109 mph and was projected to travel 422 feet.

“Fresh,” said Herrera, describing the feel of the ball impacting his bat.

As Herrera’s ball climbed out of the yard, Kapler made eye contact with Scott Kingery in the dugout.

“We were standing on the steps, and we just kind of looked at each other in awe,” Kapler said. “It was one of those, ‘Wow!’ moments. He’s so hot, but he’s such an incredible athlete. What he’s doing, I don’t remember seeing. It’s really special. It’s really elite barrel accuracy. I really don’t know how to describe it. He just knows how to find the barrel, knows how to find the sweet spot and it’s really impressive.”

How did it turn for Herrera?

“I kept working in the cage and now things are working out for me,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an adjustment. I’m just making good contact again and trying not to think about it too much.”

Herrera has heated up just in time for one of the Phillies' most important series of the season. After Thursday's off day, they will play at NL East rival Washington on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Adam Morgan turns the boos to cheers, saves it for Phillies

Adam Morgan turns the boos to cheers, saves it for Phillies

BOX SCORE

There’s nowhere to hide when you’re a professional athlete and things aren’t going well on the field.

Particularly in Philadelphia.

Adam Morgan said he did not hear the boos when he trotted in from the bullpen with the game on the line in the ninth inning Wednesday afternoon. He was just focused on one thing — retiring Matt Carpenter, no easy task considering the St. Louis Cardinals’ leadoff man had almost personally beaten the Phillies the previous night.

Morgan was booed because the fans at Citizens Bank Park did not have much faith in him and his 15.75 ERA in the month of June. But manager Gabe Kapler had faith in Morgan and the pitcher had faith in himself. With the tying run standing on second base, Morgan retired the dangerous duo of Carpenter and Tommy Pham to wrap up a tense 4-3 win over the Cardinals (see first take).

The boos turned to cheers as Morgan became the seventh reliever to earn a save this season in Kapler’s be-ready-for-anything-boys bullpen.

After the game, Brother Gabe raved about Morgan’s perseverance and the job he did against “an incredible hitter” in Carpenter.

“Mo had a lot of poise and confidence and we went with our gut there and it worked out well for him,” Kapler said. “I’m so happy for him. He’s battled through a lot of struggles.”

The struggles included giving up a grand slam to lose a game in Wrigley Field and allowing a game-tying hit in the ninth inning of a game the Phillies eventually won Monday night.

Morgan is a humble Southern gentleman, a man of few words. Kapler is a loquacious Southern Californian. The manager put into words Morgan's escape from the abyss better than the pitcher.

“I think it’s a series of adjustments,” Kapler said. “It’s looking himself in the mirror. It’s having heart-to-heart talks with a lot of our staff and his teammates. It’s some trial and error. It’s getting through it by pitching and getting off the mound, and when I say that I mean practice on the mound, not just the game situations, finding himself through bullpen sessions, and a lot of hard work from (pitching coaches) Rick Kranitz and Chris Young. But ultimately the credit goes to Mo for what he did today.”

Morgan kept the ball from the final out as a souvenir of his first big-league save.

“It feels good,” he said. “It feels good to get a win. It feels good to go out there in any situation and get a win.

“I’ve struggled, but it’s never as bad as it is and it’s never as good as it is. You just have to keep going after it and working. You can’t quit. That’s not going to help anything.”

The Phillies got a big two-run homer from Cesar Hernandez in the fourth inning and a tie-breaking homer from smokin' Odubel Herrera in the seventh. With Seranthony Dominguez unavailable, Kapler used Austin Davis, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Morgan to navigate the final three innings after Jake Arrieta exited a 3-3 game.

Arano started the ninth with a one-run lead and exited after allowing a one-out double. In a lefty-on-lefty matchup, Morgan used a slider to get Carpenter to pop out to third baseman Maikel Franco for the second out. (Franco made a long run into foul territory to make the play.) Morgan then got Pham on a ground ball to end the game.

Would Kapler still have gone to Morgan if there were two outs and no one on base?

“It’s a possibility,” Kapler said. “We’re reading and reacting to what’s happening on the field, so because there’s not an alternate universe, I can’t tell you for sure.”

One thing that could be said for sure is that the Phillies have won three straight series. They hadn’t beaten the Cardinals in a series since 2014. They blew leads in all three games, but got the job done.

“This was an emotional series for us because there’s a roller-coaster ride happening out there and we were put in some tough spots,” Kapler said. “We had some leads go back and forth in this series. That lineup is super tough. To have our pitchers run through them today was really impressive.”

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