The Morris of old

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- It's a big relief for Matt Morris, given the luxury of concentrating on his pitches instead of that dull ache in his shoulder.

The Cardinals' former ace has made two starts since beginning the season on the 15-day disabled list while rehabbing from offseason surgery. Both have been big successes, giving the National League champions perhaps the best fifth starter around. In 11 innings he's allowed three earned runs with 11 strikeouts and two walks.

"This is the best I've felt physically in a long time," Morris said after working five innings on Sunday to help the Cardinals sweep the Astros. "It's been a gradual process, and the last two games I couldn't ask for anything better.

"All in all, it's night and day difference."

Morris won 15 games last year, but with a career worst 4.72 ERA as he battled mechanical woes brought on by his balky shoulder, patching together a decent year despite reduced velocity. He had been expected to test the free agent market before it was determined he needed arthroscopic surgery, and instead ended up re-signing with the team that drafted him in the first round back in 1995.

Morris made such a rapid recovery he might have been able to start the season on time, way ahead of schedule considering the surgery was in November. But he wasn't needed until April 19 due to days off in a rotation that is the first since the 1932 Cubs to feature five 15-game winners.

So far, Morris is more like the pitcher who won 22 games in 2001 and 17 in 2002 than the guy who's fallen off elite status the last two years. That's good news for a staff already bolstered in the offseason by left-hander Mark Mulder, who threw a 10-inning shutout to beat Roger Clemens and the Astros on Saturday.

"As a team, I always had faith in what they were going to do," Morris said. "Myself, I had questions just because I'm trying to feel it and find it.

"I'm glad I'm able to step up. You're mentally challenged as well as physically."'

The wait at the start of the season was worth it for Morris, who allowed the Pirates one run and four hits in six innings. He wasn't quite as good on Sunday, needing 91 pitches to get through five innings, but the Astros would have scored only one run except for a catchable ball that fell between outfielders Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker.

"I think he came out early and wasn't quite in sync," manager Tony La Russa said of Morris. "But he kept pitching, and he got in a good groove the last three-plus innings."

When Morris gave up a run in the first, he returned to the dugout to replay his pitch selection, not to second-guess his stuff. It may take him a little longer to get loose these days, but when he does he's able to spot his fastball on both sides of the plate.

"When you go in and sit down, it's easier to go over things when you're making bad decisions rather than just not executing," Morris said. "Just to feel good allows you to think about other things. It's a different style of pitching, for sure."

Morris is expected to start Saturday at Atlanta.

"I know I'll feel 91 pitches, but I'd feel 70," Morris said. "It's just part of it."

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