Morales emerges as problem solver

CHICAGO -- How could Bobby Valentine have known what he had in left-hander Franklin Morales back in spring training?

"There were too many questions," the Boston Red Sox manager said Sunday night.

All he had were the reports -- Morales had trouble throwing strikes, Morales wasn't especially durable -- and then he was told Morales had a weak shoulder and couldn't throw, the training staff keeping him out of game action for the better part of three weeks in camp.

Weak shoulder? That came as a surprise to the 26-year-old Venezuelan, too.

"When they did the tests, they told me my shoulder was way down," Morales said Sunday night after a command performance against the Cubs (nine whiffs, no walks, two runs in five innings) in an emergency start in place of sore-shouldered Josh Beckett. "I felt good.

"But when they did the testing, the number was down. I told my agent [Fernando Cuza] I wanted to pitch, but he said, 'Sit out, make sure you're going to be strong.'"

So Morales rested, though he told Valentine when asked that his shoulder felt fine, and when the tests were repeated, the number was better. Did Morales feel stronger?

"I felt the same," he said. "But maybe when they did the tests again, I was stronger."

Fast forward to Sunday night, when Morales, making his first start in more than three years (April 21, 2009 was the last, while with Colorado), looked like the guy who excited the Rockies when he first arrived in the big leagues as a 21-year-old. That was in September 2007, in a pennant race, and Morales had made just 17 starts in Double-A, three in Triple-A, but the Rockies needed the help and couldn't afford to give him more seasoning.

Actually, he was much better Sunday night than he was then.

"My first call-up," he said, "I was too young. I tried to throw everything hard. Now I try to slow the game down and make my pitches."

Valentine saw something in Morales that led him to consider him as a backup plan in case the Sox needed another starter. He left him in for 4 1/3 innings in Toronto earlier this month, then followed that with a three-inning stint against the Nationals on June 9. By then, Valentine had other lefty options in the pen, including Andrew Miller and Rich Hill (until he got hurt again).

"We might have mentioned that along the way," Valentine said. "He looked good, I passed the idea [of starting] to him and he said yes.

"I had a hunch he could perform well in that situation and he proved our hunch with five pretty good innings. And he had more, according to him. There will be a chance for more innings next time."

With Beckett on the disabled list, and Morales pitching so well Sunday, there will be a next time.

"Of course," Valentine said.

What had he seen to make him believe Morales could do this?

"Talking to him, watching him, believing in him," the manager said. "I kept seeing him come in short stints and throw great pitches and then make a bad pitch and have to come out of the game. When he had some length, he did a good job."

This was against the last-place Cubs, of course, and it remains to be seen how well Morales bounces back from throwing 80 pitches, especially since he has had shoulder issues in the past and went on the DL last season with the Sox with what was called a forearm strain. But still, Morales showed enough to have placed himself in the mix for rotation consideration. Which is something he finds eminently appealing.

"I like to start," he said. "I like to have days to rest and concentrate on how I will pitch."

On Sunday, the pitcher who has had control issues in the past threw 65 strikes and just 15 balls, and did not walk a batter. In the first inning, he threw 19 pitches, 17 for strikes. He faced 19 batters and threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of them. Of the 60 pitches he threw to right-handed batters, 50 were strikes, or 83 percent. Of the 48 pitches the Cubs swung at, they missed a third, 16 swinging strikes.

"Quick tempo, threw strikes, challenged hitters, spectacular," Valentine said. "Curveball? So-so. Everything else, spectacular."

Three of the four hits he allowed came on his curveball. His fastball averaged 94 mph and maxed out at 95. He also threw an outstanding changeup and mixed in an occasional slider and two-seamer.

"You know what?" he said. "I showed I can do it."

Yes he did. Well enough to cushion the blow resulting from the loss of Beckett?

That is to be determined. But for one night, the answer was a resounding yes.