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Brandon Morrow escaped last summer. He went up to the mountains with his family, away from the Arizona heat, and left baseball behind. The sport had been a source of frustration for two years. He focused on being a dad. He pretended he was retired. He wondered if it would end up being for real.
But by October, by the time another postseason rolled around, the itch to pitch returned. Abandoning the endless, mind-numbing, dispiriting rehabilitation process was the reset he needed.
“Good for the mind, body and soul,” the 36-year-old right-hander said.
Morrow started throwing again Dec. 1. Within days he and the Dodgers agreed on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, returning him to where he enjoyed his greatest success as a major leaguer.
It’s a reunion not only with the organization, but with Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior, who convinced Morrow to become a reliever when Morrow was on the San Diego Padres’ triple-A team and Prior was the Padres’ pitching coordinator. The decision put Morrow on the path to help the Dodgers come within a game of winning the World Series in 2017.
Whether he contributes this year remains unclear. He’s competing for one of the two projected open bullpen spots on the roster and hasn’t pitched in a competitive game in nearly three years. But he’s done it before and the Dodgers hope he can do it again.
The first time Morrow signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers, before the 2017 season, he had recently been converted to a reliever and had a lengthy injury history. He didn’t break spring training with the team but was called up days before the June 1 opt-out deadline.
He proceeded to become one of the best relievers in the majors, posting a 2.06 earned-run average in 45 appearances behind a 100-mph fastball. With Kenley Jansen at the peak of his powers in the ninth inning, the back end of the Dodgers’ bullpen was scary.
Morrow remained dominant in the postseason until Game 5 of the World Series. He wasn’t supposed to pitch that night. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told him he was off after appearing in the first four games of the series. But Morrow played catch during the game, felt good, and told the bullpen coach to inform Roberts that he wanted to pitch.
Roberts listened and Morrow, who had allowed one home run all year, was inserted in the seventh inning to face the top of Houston’s lineup with the Dodgers leading 8-7. Disaster ensued. Morrow allowed four runs on four hits. George Springer led off with a home run. Alex Bregman singled. José Altuve doubled. Carlos Correa supplied the back-breaking blow, a two-run home run to end Morrow’s night.
The Dodgers eventually lost 13-12 in 10 innings. Clayton Kershaw started the game for the Dodgers and allowed six runs. The Astros didn’t swing and miss once on his 51 breaking pitches. Two years later, the Astros’ cheating scheme was uncovered.
“This guy, at that moment, was the most dominant stopper in baseball, arguably, or him and Kenley were,” Joel Wolfe, Morrow’s agent, said. “And he convinced them he was good to go. And he went into that game with the very same velocity, the very same stuff and spin rates as before and he got hammered and he ended up having to throw a lot more pitches, high-leverage pitches, than were expected.
“We only found out later that the reason that happened is because they knew it was coming. Had that situation not developed the way it had, who knows how it would've worked out?”
Morrow hasn’t pitched in a major league game since July 15, 2018. It was his 35th appearance as the Chicago Cubs’ closer after signing a two-year, $21-million contract with a team option for a third season on the heels of his dominance in 2017. He logged a scoreless ninth inning for his 22nd save and emerged with a 1.47 ERA. But pain in his elbow had gradually worsened to a point he no longer could ignore it.
He landed on the injured list, didn’t pitch again, and underwent an arthroscopic surgery in November. The Cubs expected he’d return in 2019, but problems persisted. He was diagnosed with radial tunnel syndrome and underwent a procedure to decompress the radial nerve in his right arm that July. A month later, the Cubs announced he wouldn’t pitch that season after experiencing another setback. He then underwent nerve decompression surgery.
“You never know the cumulative effect of everything,” Morrow said when asked if the 2017 World Series was the source of his elbow troubles. "It's hard to say.”
The Cubs bought out Morrow’s contract for $3 million that offseason, making him a free agent. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said he reached out to Morrow about a reunion, but Morrow felt an obligation to the Cubs and signed a minor league deal to stay with the organization. A calf injury in February set him back again. The Cubs released him in July.
“I was feeling OK, but it hadn't been all that much time since the nerve decompression surgery so I was still rehabbing, feeling tentative, definitely, from that,” Morrow said. “And I think that with everything that went down last year, just definitely in my best interest to take all that time off.”
Friedman quickly reached out to Morrow upon his release and maintained contact over the summer and through the fall.
“If he's healthy, I will bet on him helping us,” Friedman said. “And so now it's just being around him again and doing everything we can to put him in the best position to go out and compete and be able to bounce back and stay healthy through the season. And that if Brandon Morrow is healthy in October, I would bet on him.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.