Matt Morris Faces A Critical Year

The St. Louis Cardinals' former staff ace may encounter trouble staying the 2005 rotation.

In the old game show "What's My Line", a mysterious guest was asked "Will the real person please step forward?" After a couple of hesitant steps designed to invoke suspense, the real guest would take a step away from the imposters. Seeing the bearded Matt Morris make the front page of the local sports sections, I've begun to ask the same question. Will the real Matt Morris please step forward? The suspense is killing me.

Matt Morris' service with the Cardinals has, as the Deadheads say, been a long, strange trip and not always fun. Drafted by the Cardinals after pitching for Seton Hall, Matty Mo hit the big show at the beginning of the 1997 season with great promise and hype, and he didn't disappoint. In his rookie season, Morris won 12 games and lost 9 with a 3.19 ERA while pitching 219 innings.

After a decent start in 1998, Morris began feeling pain in his pitching elbow and eventually went on the disabled list for a year and a half, enduring Tommy John surgery and extensive rehab. He missed all of the 1999 season in the process.

Morris returned to Busch and was wisely used out of the bullpen in the 2000 campaign. He wisely bonded with the newly-acquired Darryl Kile. Kile became a respected mentor to Morris, who seemed to thrive under the tutelage of both Kile and Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan. In 2001 Morris stormed back into the starting rotation and finished with a record of 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA while giving up a measly 13 home runs.

After a good start in 2002, disaster struck. Not a week after the passing of Mr. Buck, all of Cardinal Nation was brought to its knees by the sudden death of the stalwart Kile on June 22, 2002 while in Chicago to face the Cubs. While everyone affiliated with the game of baseball mourned the loss of Kile, few were as devastated as Kile's young protégé Morris. Among the Cardinals during the period, Morris seemed to be particularly affected by DK's untimely passing.

Since that fateful summer, Morris has been on a slow, unsteady, unpredictable and inexplicable decline. He finished the 2002 season with a respectable 17-9 record while giving up 16 home runs. In 2003 he slipped to 11-8 while giving up 20 homers. Last year he finished the season at 15-10, pitching a robust 202 innings but giving up 35 home runs. He was as erratic as a starting pitcher can be; sometimes appearing brilliant while other times leaving fans wondering if he was finished. His proclivity for throwing semi-fastballs and hanging curves up in the strike zone made him a fan favorite to be the starting pitcher in the pre-All-Star Game Home Run Derby.

By the end of the 2004 season, many were questioning whether Morris should even be on the play-off roster. Tony La Russa, deferring to the experience of the veteran Morris, kept him on the roster and in the starting line-up. In the first two series, Morris made La Russa's decision seem reasonable although perhaps not incisive.

Against the Dodgers, Morris pitched game three of the series and acquitted himself fairly well in a losing effort at Chavez Ravine against the red hot Jose Lima. The Cardinals were shut out 4-0. Morris pitched 7 complete innings while surrendering 6 hits, 4 earned runs, 2 walks, and 5 K's. The home run bug bit again, though, as Shawn Green teed off twice against Morris.

In the next series against Houston, Morris started games two and six. Both times he gave way to the bullpen which resulted in wins for Julian Tavarez. In the Houston series, Morris struggled a bit but held on, pitching 10 innings. He gave up 11 hits, 6 earned runs, 8 walks, and six strikeouts for a 5.40 ERA. Again, this performance wasn't necessarily the Matt Morris of old, but he held the Astros in check long enough for the bullpen to assist in wins. Game six, of course, was the 12 inning affair that was climaxed by Jim Edmonds' two-run walk-off home run that sealed the win and broke the Astros' back.

In the World Series, the Matt Morris many feared resurfaced. He started Game 2 at Boston and promptly got in trouble with his control. He pitched 4 1/3 innings, gave up 4 hits and 4 earned runs. Though he gave up no home runs, he didn't need to. He walked 4 and struck out two in his brief appearance, which the Cardinals ultimately lost 6-2. Morris was clearly frustrated and angry. La Russa would never have the chance to consider whether or not to start Morris in another game against Boston.

Despite Morris' 2004 comments to the effect that he was healthy and felt fine, a post-season MRI revealed some damage to his pitching shoulder. After a West Coast second opinion, team orthopedic surgeons made some repairs to the shoulder and declared that Morris should be ready to pitch by early in the 2005 season. Morris was a free agent after the 2004 season, but found that with the burden of his 2004 season coupled with the surgery there was little interest. He re-signed with the Cardinals at a significant pay reduction.

And so back we come to the image of the bearded Morris. Reports are that his beard is flecked with gray as he will turn 31 in August. He finds himself at spring training with an uncertain future with one question, the answer to which sets up another. With a clean bill of health, positive reports about his throwing this early in the year, and the support of Cardinal field and front office management, Morris has been given the opportunity to reestablish himself as one of the top pitchers in the game. By returning to the Matt Morris of old, he could be the new Chris Carpenter, the guy fate could knock down but who would get back up and give better than he took. I like Matt Morris a lot and am rooting for him to fully achieve that level of consistent performance that has so eluded him since 2002.

IF…IF Morris can reassert himself as a productive starting pitcher, the next question is that of leadership. The youthful, baby-faced effervescent Matty Mo of old is no more. We are now confronted with a salt-and-pepper bearded veteran who knows the game, the franchise, and the fans. A successful outcome to the first question begets the next question, then. Can Matt Morris be the kind of veteran pitcher the younger Cardinal pitchers can look up to and receive the kind of thoughtful mentoring that Morris received from DK?

This could be such an important role for Matt and for which he may be uniquely qualified. Matt Morris may be the ultimate legacy of Darryl Kile, the lineage from a great pitcher who is willing to accept that torch as it was presented to him and begin the process of mentoring the young and promising as he was once mentored so effectively. Matt Morris, I believe, has the potential to win 12-15 games this season if he is healthy, but his greatest role may be in his interaction with the younger players as the student accepts the challenge of becoming the teacher and leader. Godspeed to him on both tasks.

Rex Duncan

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