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May 10, 2016

Behind Morgan, Phillies eke out another one-run victory

If you were comparing the two pitchers based simply on stuff, it was no contest.

Vince Velasquez was armed with a mid-90s fastball. Adam Morgan was a left-hander with good control, but not overpowering stuff.

But the one thing that did stand out in the case of Morgan during his competition for the fifth starter spot this spring was his ability to work quickly and efficiently. When the spring drew to a close and the coaching staff and front office went with Velasquez, it wasn’t a surprise and the 23-year-old has more than proved that he belongs in the rotation.

If they had chosen Morgan, however, you could understand after the way he pitched this spring. And he showed some of that on Tuesday night in his home state.

Morgan delivered seven strong innings while Maikel Franco had three hits (including a home run) as the Phillies collected their third straight victory with a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. 

"It was just a simple game plan: get ahead of them, and then put them away," Morgan told CSN's Gregg Murphy on the field at Turner Field after the game. "Don’t give them too much to hit."

Each of the last seven Phillies wins have come by a one-run margin.

The Phillies have won 13 of their last 18 games overall. They’ve rebounded nicely after beginning the first leg of the trip dropping three of four games in St. Louis.

Only four teams in baseball have more wins than the Phillies (19-14): the two Chicago teams (the Cubs, White Sox) and the two teams ahead of them in their own division (the Mets, Nationals). 

Morgan needed just 74 pitches to get through his first six innings. By being efficient (admittedly against an Atlanta offense that had scored 14 runs fewer than any team in baseball heading into the night), Morgan did something just one other Phillies pitcher has been able to do on their current, three-city road trip: he pitched more than six innings.

Morgan held Atlanta to one run on four hits in seven innings, striking out four and walking just one. Morgan was the first pitcher not named Aaron Nola to give the Phillies more than six innings in the last 12 games.

Why does that matter? Because when you’re a team that doesn’t score a lot of runs (the Phillies 3.24 runs per game is only slightly better than Atlanta’s 2.97 RPG) and you’re also a team that has a propensity for playing close games (15 of their first 33 games have been decided by one run), asking the bullpen to regularly get nine outs a game is asking for a lot of high-pressure outs nightly.

Eventually, the relievers will tire. Eventually, the starters (who have been very good otherwise) have to occasionally pitch beyond the sixth inning.

Morgan did that on Tuesday night for just the second time in his short career (and first time since last August). 

“My goal this year, coming back from injury two years ago, is to pitch as many innings as I can, hit the 200-inning mark," said Morgan, who replaced the injured Charlie Morton in the rotation at the end of last month. "Being efficient and staying on the field … that’ll help you. It was really fun.”

Morgan did something else that was more impressive from an individual standpoint, if not from the bigger picture, save-the-bullpen view: Morgan found his own mid-90s fastball on Tuesday night, too.

Morgan’s 86th pitch of the night was clocked at 94 MPH.

Perhaps it’s only natural that the 26-year-old Morgan has gained more strength in his second season in the major leagues. Last summer, he was only a little more than a year removed from the shoulder surgery he underwent in January of 2014.

According to PITCHf/x data, Morgan’s fastball was regularly in the 88-90 MPH range in three months with the Phillies as a rookie in 2015. In his first month in the big leagues in 2016, the same fastball is a few ticks quicker, in the 92-93 MPH range.

If Morgan can keep his fastball sitting between 91-93 MPH, and be efficient in his starts and allow himself to pitch deep into games, too, he could grow into something more than the left-hander without overpowering stuff than many pegged him as this spring.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21