Morimando goes from Australia to MLB camp

March 4th, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. -- In the midst of a global pandemic, found himself aboard a 16-hour flight with the intention of pulling off an improbable comeback.

The 28-year-old Morimando, a non-roster invite for the Marlins this Spring Training, was en route to Australia in early December as part of his quest to return to the Majors. A 19th-round selection by Cleveland in the 2011 MLB Draft, the left-hander appeared in two games for the Tribe in '16 and has spent countless hours rehabbing and training for another shot in The Show. It's the ultimate tale of perseverance and hard work.

"It's my love, it's my passion," Morimando said. "It's in my DNA. I love this game. I love pitching. I just love the grind. I love the day in and day out stuff, and being around the guys in the clubhouse, the atmosphere."

"I knew I wanted to play this game since I was a little kid," he added. "I love ... every aspect of this game and learning something every day, asking questions. It's my passion. So, keep going. There's nothing else I'd want to do."

The origin story

On Friday, July 1, 2016, the Tribe and Blue Jays played into the 19th inning at Rogers Centre. The next day's starter, Trevor Bauer, was on the mound. Morimando, who had just received a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A, was scheduled to make his debut that Saturday in Pawtucket, R.I. Instead, he got called into the office and was asked if he had his passport. Unfortunately, it was back in Akron. So Morimando packed his stuff and flew to Cleveland that night, meeting a front office member who had the passport. As luck would have it, the Double-A clubhouse manager had the key to Morimando's apartment, picked up the passport and gave it to an intern, who drove to Cleveland and provided the hand-off.

Morimando made it to Toronto in time for his big league debut on July 2, giving up two runs over 3 2/3 relief innings. One month later, Morimando returned, but the moment overwhelmed him as he surrendered four runs in an inning.

"I had the first two outs and I kind of looked up and took it all in in New York, and the wheels kind of fell off," said Morimando, a Canandaigua, N.Y., native. "So that was a rough one. But you know, learning experience for me of being 23 years old in the Bronx pitching at Yankee Stadium."

The following September, Morimando earned another callup but didn't pitch. By 2018, his velocity had begun to drop, and he was diagnosed with nerve inflammation in his left shoulder. When it was time to rehab in Arizona, injuries at the big league level meant the club needed a roster spot, which led to Morimando being released. After clearing waivers, the Blue Jays came calling. Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro, two members of Cleveland's front office when it drafted him, were now in charge in Toronto and signed the southpaw.

When Morimando left Arizona, he spent the next four weeks in Dunedin, Fla., then Triple-A Buffalo. There, he worked with Doug Mathis, now the co-pitching coach for the Rangers, on his starter's repertoire. It was at this time that Morimando discovered via TrackMan and Rapsodo data that his new changeup grip got more run, becoming a plus pitch with 16-19 inches of horizontal movement. His cutter, which became his "bread and butter," could locate on either side of the plate and miss barrels. With the same arm slot as his two-seamer and four-seamer, it tunneled really well and revamped his career.

As a result, Toronto sent him to the Arizona Fall League for more work, and he received an invitation to big league camp in spring 2019.

But all that progress was for naught when Morimando's elbow flared up with spasms, landing him on the injured list following a cortisone shot. After making four starts in Triple-A upon his activation from the IL, the organization moved him to the bullpen before the Trade Deadline. By Morimando's third inning of a relief outing, his elbow locked up on him. An MRI revealed bone spurs and loose bodies.

After not missing a start during his professional career from 2011-17, Morimando had sustained another setback on the injury front. Dr. Keith Meister, team physician for the Rangers, performed an arthroscopic cleanup. Morimando finished his rehab in Florida and opted for free agency after the World Series because he knew Toronto had a young and deep system. Morimando bet on himself to come back healthy and earn an opportunity -- but then COVID-19 changed the landscape of baseball and the world.

"We really were piecing together like a new me, I felt like, and I was excited to use the weapons that I had in my new arsenal, because it really has been a lot of weak contact," Morimando said. "I was changing my narrative, I was changing who I was as a pitcher, and what I can do pretty much. I believe in it so much and I still do. I was able to hone in on it."

A chance Down Under

Before Spring Training shut down last year, Morimando worked out for a handful of clubs, but none committed. During lockdown, Morimando spent time with his trainer, Theo Aasen, in Tampa, Fla., where the facility was kept open with safety regulations. In the mornings, he trained. In the afternoons, he did baseball activities -- throwing bullpen sessions and live batting practice -- with pitching coach Anthony Telford. Morimando even faced former six-time All-Star José Bautista at a local high school. Still, teams passed.

Sixty-man player pools were often taken up by prospects to further their development without a Minor League season. In search of innings, Morimando had no success latching onto a winter league team in Mexico or the Dominican Republic because of the COVID-19 crisis. With time running out to make plans, Morimando reached out to a friend about playing in Australia but didn't hear back. Then came a text at the end of October from former catcher Jack Murphy, a teammate of his in 2018 with Cleveland. Murphy, now a Dodgers scout, messaged that the Canberra Cavalry was looking for a pitcher.

According to general manager Sunny Singh, Murphy -- a fan favorite for a number of years -- has been helpful finding overseas talent in the United States. After reaching an agreement, the Australian team gave Morimando a couple weeks to stretch out because it wanted him as a starter.

"With Shawn, he fit perfectly into the types of players we target," Singh wrote in an email. "A hungry player on the verge of breaking back into the big leagues, looking to get more game time before Spring Training in the U.S. From all reports from Jack, Shawn would’ve fit right in from Day 1 with the Cavalry organization, and this was evident during his time here in Canberra."

Difficulties in securing exemptions and visas coupled with the Australian government allowing only a certain number of flights and individuals into the country each week -- with returning citizens given priority -- meant Marimando's arrival was delayed. The journey began when he drove from Tampa to Orlando, Fla., then flew to Los Angeles and hopped on an international flight to Sydney.

Upon arrival on Dec. 7, 2020, New South Wales government health officials sent Morimando, who had never been this far away from home, directly to a hotel for a two-week quarantine. During that time, he kept his arm in shape by throwing against a mattress situated on the wall, much like his current Marlins teammates did when the COVID-19 outbreak kept them in their rooms. In Australia, there are specific hotels for those who test positive and those who test negative. Tests are done on Days 1, 3 and 12. Some hotels allow individuals outside time each day. Singh called it "nothing short of a nightmare" getting Morimando to Canberra, which is the country's capital.

During a typical Australian Baseball League season, there would be four games a week across 10 weeks. Per Singh, some squads would almost be 50 percent filled with imports, mostly from the U.S. As the ABL has evolved, there has been more interest from Independent League players and affiliate clubs to send guys for more game action over the offseason. Infielder Samad Taylor, whom Morimando had known since his days in Cleveland, was a teammate in Canberra.

"The psychological and physical toll the quarantine takes on the players cannot be underestimated, and it’s hard for them to come straight out of that into a gameday environment," Singh wrote.

COVID-19 also complicated matters when it came to the baseball schedule. A series against Perth was canceled because of border restrictions, so Canberra opened versus Melbourne for nine games. At one point, however, a few cases popped up and meant added restrictions; the team needed to get back to Canberra by midnight. Adelaide served as a hub for Brisbane (Queensland) and Perth (Western Australia), while Sydney was locked down in late January and used an alternate site.

Aside from the usual culture shock -- from the different terminology of food items to the slang -- it felt like an alternate reality for Morimando. While the U.S. dealt with a surge in cases, masks weren't required in parts of Australia because COVID-19 was relatively under control. Nearly 10,000 miles away, life was normal.

Fans even attended games, though the quantity varied by state. Each government had different restrictions on outdoor events. For Canberra's home games, no more than 65 percent capacity was permitted in the fixed grandstands, meaning ground capacity was close to 900-1,000 people as a maximum. The Cavalry played it safe at 800.

Coming back home

Across eight appearances (six starts), Morimando went 3-3 with a 2.57 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, one complete game and 47 strikeouts across 42 innings. In an elimination playoff game against Sydney on Feb. 8, Morimando recorded the save in a 3-2 victory. But it would be his last outing with the club.

Morimando received the call he had been waiting on for years, the reason for all the sacrifice and effort. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Brisbane, he heard from his agent that the Marlins had made an offer. It just so happens that one of the ballclubs that came to watch Morimando last summer was Miami, which sent local special assignment scout Joe Caro to see him pitch three times in Tampa.

According to Hadi Raad, the organization's director of pro scouting, Caro liked Morimando more and more on each occasion. His velocity ranged from 91-93 mph and topped at 95 mph. Miami kept tabs on how he performed on the other side of the world. While Morimando wasn't a fit in 2020, that changed. The Marlins were looking to add starter depth this offseason, especially from the left side. His years-long mission to showcase his health and stuff had finally paid off.

"[Caro said,] 'This guy can pitch, he's showing good stuff,' and I think the part that Joe really liked about him is the human interest story," Raad said. "He rehabbed by himself for almost two years trying to get back into the game. Joe talked to him and thought he was a tremendous human being with a tremendous work ethic. [Caro said], 'This guy is really motivated to get back, and he just wants an opportunity.'"

So Morimando flew back to the U.S. on Feb. 10, a week before pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training. He missed two ABL playoff games before Canberra pulled out of competition for safety reasons. Upon his arrival in Jupiter, Morimando found a familiar face in Lee Tressel, Miami's MLB strength and conditioning coach, who had trained him one offseason in Tampa.

On Monday in the Marlins' 2-0 Grapefruit League win over the Mets at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, Morimando recorded the save in his long-awaited return to a big league mound. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit, walking two and striking out two, including MLB Pipeline's No. 67 overall prospect Ronny Mauricio. Morimando worked out of trouble in the sixth following back-to-back two-out walks, and after the first two batters reached in the seventh, he induced a double play and a flyout to end the game.

According to Statcast, Morimando mixed 15 sliders, 12 four-seam fastballs, four curveballs and three changeups in a 34-pitch outing. His fastball reached 92.4 mph, while his 74.4 mph curveball provided velocity separation. In Marlins manager Don Mattingly's postgame Zoom call, he described Morimando as sharp, athletic and polished.

During his arduous journey, Morimando envisioned moments like his spring debut as motivation to keep pursuing his dream, regardless of the obstacles along the way.

"That outing meant the world to me," Morimando said, "and being in a Marlins uniform, them believing in me, giving me an opportunity to join the organization, I'm very thankful. This is the moment I've been working so hard for, and I'm ready to show what I can do day in and day out."