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Morris mowing down the opposition

Morris mowing down the opposition

Bryan Morris still remembers the date: September 2, 2006.

He remembers the opponent and the inning: Casper Ghosts in the third.

He remembers the play: an underhanded throw to first after fielding a bunt -- hyperextending his elbow.

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He even remembers the next pitch: a fastball, another hyperextension, and an inning-saving groundball.

Most of all, Bryan Morris remembers the walk back to the dugout, and the concern about what would be validated days later -- a ligament tear in his elbow, and Tommy John surgery not long after. It would take a year of development away from the 2006 first-rounder, who ranked as the Pioneer League's top prospect by Baseball America before his injury.

Morris' memory about the incident is especially clear back on the mound this season when an opponent lays down a bunt.

"I tend to set my feet a lot more than I did," laughs the Great Lakes Loons right-hander, who can laugh now that he has a 3.21 ERA in 14 Midwest League starts after his rehabilitation.

Scouts blamed the elbow injury on Morris' mechanics, claiming that he threw across his body too much. After getting the surgery, the first thing the Dodgers worked on was to change his mechanical problems.

"They kind of let me slide the first summer, because they didn't want to mess with me," said the 22-year-old. "Then I got hurt and that was the perfect opportunity for me to go back to the basics, to smooth things out and slow things down.

"I still [throw across my body] a little bit, but it's a lot smoother."

Morris was slow to accept the mechanical changes, however, because his results didn't come back. While he was again throwing his fastball between 93 and 96 mph, his out pitch was different.

"Before I got hurt I threw my curveball 78-82 and then in Instructional League last year I was throwing it 74. That bothered me a little bit," Morris said. "But all winter long I concentrated on getting that spin back, and now it's coming back. It's the best it's been. My last three or four starts, it's been pretty dirty."

The numbers certainly support Morris' claim. The Loons right-hander has a 0.84 ERA in his last four starts with nine hits allowed in 21 1/3 innings. In each of his last two outings, Morris has tied his career-high with eight strikeouts. Most importantly, he has seven walks over that time frame, and 20 in over 67 innings this season.

In the Pioneer League, Morris' success was a result of his stuff in spite of his command. With Ogden in 2006, he walked 40 batters in 59 2/3 innings. Now he's having success with good stuff because of his command, which he says he owes to the mechanical changes.

"The main thing is I can throw my breaking pitches for strikes whenever I want to, and in Ogden I struggled with that," he said. "I think I was pressing a bit in my first professional season."

The other difference between then and now, according to Morris, is that he's an entirely different pitcher against left-handed batters. His good memory about Ogden fades when talking about that as he said left-handed batters in the Pioneer League "probably hit .400 off me." In actuality, it was .272, with an on-base percentage above .400.

Flash forward two years, and it's another story. Left-handed hitters in the Midwest League are batting .228 with a .316 on-base percentage against Morris.

"But it's just going to keep dropping," said the confident Morris.

The difference, according to Morris, is his work with Great Lakes pitching coach Danny Darwin, who pitched over 3,000 innings in the Major Leagues.

"That's probably a big, big plus," Morris said. "That's 20 years of Major League experience."

Specifically, Darwin has re-shaped Morris' pitches against left-handed hitters. Early in the season, Darwin worked with him to change the grip on his changeup, a pitch Morris throws exclusively to left-handed batters. The other change is a whole new pitch that Morris has added to his arsenal.

"I've been throwing a two-seam [fastball] to some of those lefties that has some sink action to it," Morris said. "I put it in my game about four starts ago, and I'm throwing about six to eight a game."

The credit for the idea belongs to Darwin, a power pitcher himself, who believed that Morris should utilize his velocity and natural movement to garner more ground balls. While a typical power pitcher generates a lot of fly balls, Morris has groundball numbers -- a 1.93 groundout-to-flyout ratio. It's a number he has stayed consistent with for the season's entirety, but now armed with better location and two new pitches, it's a number he thinks will only go up as his ERA goes down.

"You should see a big difference in the second half from the first half and you're already seeing it," Morris said. "I feel like the more I pitch the rest of the year, the stronger my arm's going to feel."

Bryan Smith is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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