Cody Morris had some pent up excitement entering his first start of the season earlier this summer.
When Morris, a Laurel native, took the mound on July 1, he was pitching in an affiliated game for the first time since September 2019. In the 669 days between his two starts — the former with Cleveland’s High-A affiliate and the latter in a rehab start in rookie ball — Morris saw the 2020 season get canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and then the beginning of this season get delayed because of a lat injury.
When he finally took the mound in the Arizona Complex League contest, he didn’t hold anything back. Morris struck out 12 in 4 1/3 innings and allowed only two hits and one earned run.
“That was fun. It was nice since I hadn’t pitched in a competitive game in a while,” Morris said. “It was obviously fun to strike out 12 guys, but it was good to get out there and compete and be back on the mound again.”
Just under two months later, Morris, 24, is having the best success of his professional career and has ascended through Cleveland’s minor league system.
In nine starts and 35 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, the former Reservoir star has posted a 1.53 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP and 47 strikeouts. In four starts with Triple-A Columbus, Morris has allowed 10 hits and three runs while striking out 18. He punched out eight in four scoreless against Omaha (Royals) on Aug. 8, threw four no-hit frames on Aug. 14 versus Toledo (Tigers) a week later and allowed one run and walked none in four innings at Omaha a week later.
Morris, who was a seventh-round pick in 2018 after pitching for the University of South Carolina, said his biggest improvements since 2019 — when he combined for a 4.35 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 89 innings between Single-A and High-A — are his mobility and his command. He’s more confident throwing his curveball and changeup in hitters’ counts, and his improved mobility has helped him increase his average velocity up to 96 mph. He even touched 99 mph for the first time in his initial start in Triple-A earlier this month, and he’s added a cutter to his repertoire as well.
“Mobility has definitely been my biggest improvement. My body is moving a lot better,” Morris said. “I’m throwing harder and my stuff is better, but the difference is my command. In 2019, I didn’t really have command and couldn’t consistently find the zone with my off-speed stuff.”
His road to success at the highest minor league level wasn’t without speed bumps, though. The grade 2 lat strain that cropped up in the middle of a bullpen session in February caused his velocity to plummet to the low 80s. He didn’t throw for almost two months, and then Cleveland had him on a three-month progression to get back to game action.
“The lat was unique. I’ve gotten sore there before but I never had any issue or pain,” he said. “It was quite frustrating. The first two weeks, I couldn’t lift my arm up. It was hard, but I got through it.”
Another challenge for the 6-foot-4 right-hander was one that every minor leaguer endured last season when affiliate teams didn’t play due to the coronavirus pandemic. The cancellation of the season meant Morris was back in Maryland training virtually and sending video to his pitching coaches for part of 2020.
To continue training, Morris recruited former high school teammates Jon Mierzwa, Jack Barry, Joey Janush and Danny O’Hagan — who was Morris’ high school catcher — to work out with him at Reservoir High’s baseball field.
“Last year was tough for me and tough for a lot of guys. There wasn’t really a lot of gym access or organized practice,” said Morris, who was a three-time Howard County Pitcher of the Year and led Reservoir to a state championship in 2014. “But those guys were great. They threw with me and caught my bullpens.”
“The last time I had caught him was in our state final game seven years ago, so it was definitely an adjustment,” said O’Hagan. “It was great to just be able to be out there again with those guys, and helping him out was nice. ... He knows we’re all pulling for him.”
O’Hagan, Morris’ family and Reservoir coach Adam Leader and his staff drove to Harrisburg on July 14 to watch Morris pitch for Double-A Akron. He allowed two baserunners and no runs while sitting down six in four innings.
“It’s awesome to see him pitch so well,” Leader said. “With him, it’s like nothing has changed. He’s such a down-to-earth person. He’s the same guy we had at Reservoir. But the level he’s playing at is awesome. I’m proud of the fact that he can display all of his hard work on the field.”
“They’re all great, and I’m lucky to have been a part of the Reservoir baseball program,” Morris said about his former teammates and coaches.
With the success this season, Morris knows what his main objective is moving forward — staying on the field.
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“My biggest goal is to stay healthy,” said Morris, who tore his ulnar collateral ligament during his senior season at Reservoir in 2015 and later had Tommy John surgery. “I’ve had too many injuries in my career already, and you’ve got to stay on the field to keep moving up.”