OAKLAND -- The Major League level has been a learning curve for Eli Morgan. Opposing hitters have possessed nary an ounce of sympathy as the rookie has tried to find his footing. His first couple starts were, to put it nicely, rough.
But with every start, Morgan has gotten a little better. He’s pushed the needle just a little forward. And on Friday, he had arguably his best start yet in Cleveland’s 5-4 loss to the A’s at Oakland Coliseum, allowing three runs across five innings with six strikeouts to one walk. The rookie still envisions better starts moving forward, but his latest day of work is only further proof of his growth.
“It’s been a learning process, but I feel like I’m in a really good spot to continue to improve,” Morgan said.
If improvement is the goal, then Morgan is on the right path. After a tough beginning -- he allowed nine runs and 13 hits in 6 1/3 combined innings in his first two starts -- he’s gone five innings in each of his last four starts. In his last two starts, he’s held the Astros and A’s to three runs each, impressive work regardless of service time.
Still, Morgan isn’t content.
Through six starts, he’s yet to finish six innings, a milestone he eagerly wants to reach. Both he and manager Terry Francona discussed that his breaking pitches are a work in progress as well, one of the main areas he’ll need to iron out in order to take the next step.
“I didn’t have my best stuff, so I’ll kind of take it,” Morgan said. “I’ve said it before; I want to get through six. There’s a very easy baseline of six innings, [fewer] than three [runs]. I haven’t held up my end yet, but I know what I need to do to get better and I'm looking forward to getting through that sixth.”
“He’s getting his feet on the ground,” Francona said. “He’s using his changeup and his fastball. The breaking balls are a work in progress. As he tightens that up, you’re going to see him pitch deeper into games.”
While Morgan is still trying to establish himself as someone who can provide quality innings, he’s already proven himself to be sufficient at limiting free passes. Through six starts, Morgan has allowed five walks across 26 1/3 innings. That’s in line with his Minor League numbers, when he walked 2.4 per nine innings.
Morgan's ability to consistently provide quality innings would be invaluable for a Cleveland rotation, one that has been ravaged by injuries and inconsistency.
Shane Bieber, whose last outing came on June 13, isn’t ready to throw a baseball and is still limited to working with weighted balls. Aaron Civale, who hasn’t made a start since June 21, is throwing out to 105 feet, but has yet to resume pitching. Both of their return dates are unknown.
Trying to eat innings, then, has been a challenge. Sam Hentges and J.C. Mejia, who were both optioned last week, hadn't consistently provided quality outings. Triston McKenzie is perpetually electric, but has had trouble commanding the zone. With all that’s gone array in the rotation, contributions from Morgan like the one turned in on Friday would be a revelation.
As encouraging as Morgan’s outing was on Friday, so was Cleveland’s ability to claw its way back into the ballgame.
The offense entered the fifth inning with a three-run deficit, having been held in check by A's lefty Sean Manaea. But Francona’s bunch began to scrap.
Roberto Pérez lined a solo homer off Manaea in the fifth, as the club's bats woke up -- eventually chasing the southpaw from the game an inning later thanks to three straight singles from Amed Rosario, José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes, knotting the game up at three apiece.
Bradley Zimmer, who lined into a hard-luck double play in the second inning, provided the go-ahead run with a solo shot in the seventh, giving Cleveland a one-run lead and fully completing the comeback.
But the Bob Melvin-led A’s have a long-standing reputation for late-inning theatrics. With one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth, Jed Lowrie turned on Emmanuel Clase’s 100.5 mph fastball and launched it into the right-field bleachers to give the A’s a walk-off win and quash Cleveland's hopes of a comeback victory.
“He threw it right in the sweet spot, man,” Francona said. “That hurt.”
The loss certainly stung -- a win would’ve extended Cleveland’s streak to four -- but Morgan’s promising outing stood out regardless of the outcome. And should the rookie keep applying the lessons he’s learned, he'll continue to make an impression on a pitching staff that could use the boost.