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Tracy sees something special in Morales

Tracy sees something special in Morales

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DENVER -- The left arm of Rockies pitcher Franklin Morales is impossible to miss. But manager Jim Tracy ventured deeper.

By taking the time to connect with Morales' psyche, Tracy saw when he needed to make a key move that has the Rockies close to securing a playoff berth.

Tracy removed the "starting pitching prospect" label from Morales and turned him into a key reliever. Morales used his 97-mph fastball to solidify the left-handed setup role, then stepped into the closer role to convert all seven save opportunities that arose when Huston Street was out with a strained right biceps tendon.

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Rockies at a glance
2009 record: 92-70
2008 record: 74-88
Clinched NL Wild Card
NLDS matchup:
Rockies at Phillies
Postseason tix: Information

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Gonzalez: Bat on fire
Bullpen: Hitting stride
Gonzalez: Rewarding Rox
Giambi: Impact beyond bat
Tulowitzki: Ready for return
Cook: Returns right on time
Barmes: Credit to Tracy
Marquis: Living in moment
Ubaldo: Big-game pitcher
Helton/Giambi: Leaders
Stewart: Emerging star
Tracy: Quiet leader
Street: Mutual admiration
De La Rosa: Earning trust
Ubaldo: Sending a message
Helton: Resurgent slugger
Morales: On the attack
Tulowitzki: Vigorous finish

"Franklin Morales' mentality is he's an attacker," Tracy said. "That type of mentality is paramount when you're thinking about involving a guy in back-end-of-the-game situations."

In 2007, the Rockies pressed Morales, 21, into service in the rotation during the late-season run that put them in the playoffs. But he struggled in the postseason, going 0-0 but with a 9.90 ERA in four games that included two starts. Morales started 2008 in the starting rotation, but the Rockies sent him to Triple-A Colorado Springs after he had gone 1-2 with a 6.49 ERA through six starts. The Rockies didn't call him back all year.

Morales revealed after the season that he had suffered a back injury late in Spring Training. Afraid he would lose his chance, Morales hid the injury from the Rockies' front office and training staff until after the season.

Somehow, the talented but unsure-of-himself Morales has grown into someone having the confidence to pitch important innings in important games.

"I've learned to throw the first pitch for a strike and attack the hitter," Morales said. "It doesn't matter what inning. Wherever Tracy puts me, I need to do my job. I think he has confidence in me."

Morales won a job in the rotation coming out of Spring Training, and rewarded the Rockies on April 8 by holding the D-backs to one run and four hits in six innings of a 9-2 Rockies victory at Chase Field. With the Rockies having an unusual number of days off in the first month, they sent him to Colorado Springs until they needed him -- again at Chase Field -- on April 21. But Morales left that game with a sore throwing shoulder after two innings.

When Morales was ready to return, Tracy asked him to go back to Colorado Springs and work on attacking the strike zone early in counts. When the Rockies optioned Randy Flores to Colorado Springs on July 6 and needed a lefty, Morales was presented with his chance to prove Tracy's hunch right.

In late August, Tracy mused that Morales' future was toward the end of games. He couldn't have known that Street would experience tightness while throwing in the bullpen in preparation for a save opportunity on Sept. 2.

Without hesitation, Tracy said, "I want Morales."

Tracy managed the Dodgers when Eric Gagne was baseball's most dominant closer, so he has experience turning a young arm into someone who finishes games.

"What we asked him to do was not easy," Tracy said. "Was he completely ready for that? Maybe not. Are there still mountains to climb with him? There sure are.

"But if we're successful in doing so, this will be one of the more special relief pitchers that there is in baseball."

Morales' toughest save conversion was on Sept. 7, when he gave up two hits to open the ninth while protecting a 4-3 lead against the Reds. A throw by Chris Iannetta to erase a would-be basestealer helped, but Morales took care of the rest. He struck out Donnell McDonald to end the game.

Recent outings have been tougher. Teams have stacked right-handed hitters against him and are taking more controlled swings at his fastball and breaking ball.

By moving him back to a lefty setup role, Tracy can better tailor his innings to lefty batters. But he believes Morales can handle a bigger role eventually.

"Ninety-seven mph with a consistent breaking pitch to get yourself back into counts when a hitter has the count, and a third pitch that doesn't have to be consistent as the other two -- how hard does he become to hit?" Tracy said. "It becomes virtually impossible.

"That's the next plateau that you go to."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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