TORONTO -- The biggest storyline for Brandon Morrow during Spring Training was his lack of fastball command. It was a work in progress throughout camp, and apparently is still an issue almost a month into the season.
Toronto's right-hander has the type of velocity most pitchers can only dream of, but that doesn't really mean anything unless he can throw it in the zone. That was next to impossible vs. the Red Sox, and the end result was yet another short outing from a Blue Jays starter.
Morrow walked a career-high eight batters and allowed four runs over just 2 2/3 innings and the Blue Jays came up short in their late-inning rally with a 7-6 loss to Boston on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre.
"I was all over the place for a lot of it," Morrow said after his fifth appearance of the season. "It's not a good feeling when you can take the blame for the game and put it squarely on your shoulders. I came in with one goal, and that was to pitch late into the game and keep us in it. I let down the team in a big way today."
Morrow has been using his fastball less this season, and one line of thinking is that it's because he has struggled to throw it for strikes. According to FanGraphs, Morrow entered play on Saturday using his fastball just 49.5 percent of the time, which is down from 52.6 percent in 2013 and 57.6 percent in 2012.
Unlike a curveball or splitter, though, the fastball isn't a pitch that can be temporarily tossed aside until the problem is fixed. The fastball remains Morrow's bread and butter, and he kept trying to get a feel for it against Boston, but couldn't seem to locate it down in the zone. As a result, he walked two batters in each of the first two innings, and then walked four in a row during the third before getting pulled from the game.
It was just the 11th time in franchise history that a Blue Jays pitcher has walked eight batters in a game. The club record is nine, and is held by Chris Carpenter, Pat Hentgen, Jim Clancy and Jesse Jefferson. Morrow also became the first pitcher in either league to walk at least eight batters in less than three innings since Kerry Wood did it with the Cubs on Sept. 22, 2000.
The Blue Jays appeared to take issue with a lot of calls from home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg. There were a number of borderline pitches that Kellogg called balls, and there was visible frustration shown on the field by Morrow and catcher Dioner Navarro. Pitching coach Pete Walker eventually got tossed in the third inning for voicing his displeasure with Kellogg. After the game, though, neither Morrow or manager John Gibbons used that as an excuse.
"I don't get into the umps back there," Gibbons said. "It's also tough to call balls and strikes when you're scattering it pretty good. When you're wide and high and then you paint one, that's not an easy assignment back there either."
Morrow departed in the third with two outs and the bases loaded. Right-hander Chad Jenkins came in and promptly surrendered a grand slam to A.J. Pierzynski and a solo shot to Will Middlebrooks. Even though those were the first hits of the afternoon for Boston, it was still enough to push six runs across the plate.
That brought Morrow's walk total to 16 in 22 1/3 innings, and he has pitched more than five innings just once this season. He's the first American League pitcher to walk at least eight in less than three innings since Yankees starter Steve Adkins did it on Sept. 12, 1990.
The disappointing start from Morrow is a continuation of what has become a trend for Toronto's pitching staff. The Blue Jays have allowed at least seven runs in each of their past four games and have surrendered an average of nine runs per game over that same span. The club's starters have thrown six innings or more just 10 times and own a 4.65 ERA in 24 games this season.
"It's embarrassing to not be able to command your fastball," said Morrow, who threw just 26 of his 65 pitches for strikes. "I had decent command of the other stuff. I threw my curveball for strikes, my split for strikes for the most part, was just wild with the fastball. Mainly arm side and up. That's number one what you have to do, is command the fastball to be successful."
Toronto's offense got off to a quick start vs. right-hander Clay Buchholz as Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera reached base to open the game. Reyes eventually came around to score on a wild pitch while Jose Bautista and Navarro each added RBI singles, but Toronto went scoreless the rest of the way vs. Buchholz.
The Blue Jays did make things interesting late in the game. Juan Francisco got things started in the eighth inning with a solo home run to straightaway center field off reliever Junichi Tazawa for his second in as many games. Pinch-hitter Edwin Encarnacion later added an RBI single and Toronto went on to load the bases. Boston manager John Farrell then called upon his closer, Koji Uehara, who got Cabrera to pop out and end the threat.
Bautista brought the Blue Jays even closer when he led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a solo shot to left field. It was the first home run Uehara allowed since June 30, 2013, which also was hit by Bautista. Toronto then put runners on first and second with two outs, but Encarnacion lined out to end the game.
"They have had success against both Tazawa and Koji," Farrell said. "The last time Koji gave up a home run was to Bautista last summer. I'm well aware of what Tazawa's numbers are against these guys. ... They put some good swings on it."