SEATTLE — In all those years of dreaming about pitching in a major-league game, Francisco Morales always imagined striking out the first batter on a late-breaking slider.
And then came Monday night.
“It happened,” Morales said.
Indeed, one night after the Phillies called him up from double A, Morales entered in the seventh inning of a blowout victory over the Seattle Mariners and whiffed not only the first batter, touted outfielder Jarred Kelenic, but also the second, catcher Cal Raleigh, both on nasty sliders. Morales’ wife, Oriana, was even here to see it, after jetting cross-country from Philadelphia in the morning.
Morales finished off a no-muss, no-fuss 12-pitch inning with a pop-up to shallow right field, then pitched a scoreless eighth for good measure. He got the usual handshakes and high fives, and praise from manager Joe Girardi. But the best part, he said later, was a bear hug in the dugout after the seventh inning from Phillies starter Ranger Suárez, his countryman from Venezuela who pitched the first six innings of a 9-0 victory.
“That calmed me down,” Morales said through a team translator. “That was great. I think it was the most special thing.”
Nice moment for Morales and Suárez. But what about for the eagle-eyed scout who signed both of them for the Phillies four years apart, keeping tabs on the game from some 4,300 miles away?
“It was a great feeling to see those two guys throwing the way they pitched,” Jesús Méndez said by phone Tuesday. “I know they’re going to have a lot of future. Because these two guys, they have like cold blood. They have no fear, nothing. They just pitch like veterans.”
Méndez, 57, stayed up well past his bedtime Monday night in Venezuela, especially since he had to catch a morning flight to Miami. But he wasn’t going to miss this. So, he caught Suárez’s final three innings and Morales’ two, beaming the entire time like a proud father.
“Pretty cool,” said Girardi, who gave Méndez a shout-out after the game. “Good night for him.”
The Phillies signed Suárez and Morales in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Suárez signed for $25,000; Morales, who was more highly touted, received $720,000.
Both pitchers navigated twists and turns along the way to the majors. But Suárez has become a staple in the Phillies’ starting rotation after a breakthrough season last year, and it isn’t difficult to see Morales taking on a significant role in the bullpen in his first full season as a reliever.
“Francisco has a tremendous arm,” Méndez said. “I know he’s going to help us a lot.”
Morales, a 22-year-old right-hander, may have been among the prospects who were most affected by the cancellation of the 2020 minor-league season. He tried to develop a changeup, but it came at the expense of his signature slider. He bottomed out last season, going 4-13 with a 6.94 ERA as a starter at double-A Reading, and tumbled from No. 4 to No. 28 on Baseball America’s list of top Phillies prospects.
When the Phillies held organizational meetings in the offseason, team officials discussed Morales’ future and reached a consensus — rookie farm director Preston Mattingly recently termed it a “group decision” — to make him into a reliever. They figured it would allow him to focus on only his fastball and slider. He also could pitch exclusively from the stretch, a benefit for a 6-foot-4 pitcher with difficulty repeating his mechanics.
There was only one problem: As a 40-man roster player, Morales was locked out. The Phillies couldn’t alert him to the role change until after the 99-day work stoppage.
“As soon as I got to spring training, the first bullpen, that’s when they told me,” Morales said. “Honestly, to me, it was just another change in life.”
Morales, impressively self-aware, said he wondered about moving to the bullpen before the Phillies told him he would. Méndez even recalled a conversation with Phillies international scouting director Sal Agostinelli when Morales was 16 in which they thought he had the look of a future late-inning reliever.
“I always said that he was going to be a setup guy or maybe he could be a closer because he had the tools to do that,” said Méndez, a Phillies scout since 1997 after playing seven seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. “The [arm] angle he has is like a three-quarter delivery. He had that velocity, and he was going to develop that slider as he got stronger.”
Morales is a mountain of a man, with shoulders wide enough to block the sun. He adapted easily to the bullpen, allowing one run in 16⅓ innings over nine appearances for Reading. He retired 47 of 59 batters, 28 by strikeout.
The Phillies promoted Morales on Sunday, part of a roster shuffle after starters Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin were placed on the COVID-19 injury list. But it was only a matter of time before they reached down for Morales.
Morales appears to be on Seranthony Domínguez’s 2018 track. The Phillies turned Domínguez into a full-time reliever before that season. Then-manager Gabe Kapler went to watch him pitch in the minors on an off-day in April, and by the first week of May, Dominguez was in the big leagues. A month later, he was coming into save situations.
At Reading, the Phillies used Morales often in multiple-inning stints. He could settle into that role at the big-league level, bridging the gap between the starters and back-end relievers. As he gains Girardi’s trust, Morales will earn higher-leverage opportunities.
“I’m one of those guys that likes to pitch more often than every fifth day,” Morales said. “I like pitching in back-to-back games or more regularly. The adrenaline that you have, that you feel late in the game when the game depends on you, when it’s in your hands. I like that a lot.”
It’s OK. As long as Morales keeps getting outs, Méndez will keep staying up late.
“He always said that he wanted to be a reliever. He liked that,” Méndez said. “He can be successful as a reliever. He has that attitude. He’s going to really help us.”