SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Under a faultless sky, on a perfect fall day, Adam Morgan went to the mound Monday accompanied by the applause of exactly 306 fans and took one more step back to where he had once been.
The Arizona Fall League isn't a field of dreams, but it is a seeding ground for prospects to grow, for developing big-leaguers to acquire a new skill, and for players who have suffered injuries to reclaim a place in their organizations' plans. Lefthander Adam Morgan falls into the third category.
It is no secret that the Phillies need starting pitching, or that they have failed recently to produce starters in the minor leagues. Morgan is aware of that, just as he was two seasons ago, when he was on the verge of a call-up from triple A to join the rotation. But the pain in his left shoulder persisted and then worsened, as did his pitching, and two years have basically fallen from the calendar. He can't get them back, but, at least fortunately for him, the Phillies haven't solved their problems in the interim, either.
"I was close. The opportunity was there and I was young and thinking, 'Oh, this is going to be my shot.' But now this is an opportunity for me to learn so much more, and when I get back to that point - which I will - I'll be that much better and that much more prepared," said Morgan, who is playing in the fall league for the Scottsdale Scorpions along with six other Phillies prospects. "Now I know that you go out, do what you can do, and if it's your time, it's your time. You can't put extra pressure on yourself by saying that Halladay's down or Cliff Lee's down and they need someone up there. If it's your time, it's your time."
Morgan, 24, who struggled through most of the 2013 season before being shut down, had shoulder surgery in January to close a gap in the front of his shoulder that was catching the top of the humerus bone. It was one suture to draw the gap together, but the recovery wasn't quite as simple.
"You think it's going to be smooth sailing and you'll get right back to normal," Morgan said. "But they closed something down and made it tighter and it took a while to get the range of motion back. That was the hardest part for me. You have to be mentally tough to go through that. You can't just pick up a ball and be who you were. You have all these questions in the back of your head. Is this thing right? Did the surgery work? But now I've got that range of motion back, the arm strength is there, and I'm able to pitch."
On Monday, Morgan had some trouble with location when he reached back for a real fastball and he pitched backward to get out of trouble, starting at-bats with sliders and curveballs that kept the hitters off balance. In a professional four innings, he allowed three hits and one earned run. He reached 91 and 92 m.p.h. on the radar gun, and, this being just his sixth time on a mound since the surgery, it was a good day.
"We really sent him there just to get him back on the mound and let him get innings and go compete. Then we can evaluate where he is in his program as far as coming back," said Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development. "His stuff is not all the way back where it was before his surgery, but we didn't expect it would be right away. I've seen Adam beat teams in a lot of ways. Sometimes, it's stuff. Sometimes, it's finesse. Sometimes, it's pitching backward. We believe he's going to be a winning pitcher and we're counting on his stuff being enough. We think it will be."
The Phillies are due for a break in that department. Right now, the rotation for 2015 is a mystery. Cole Hamels and Jerome Williams are written in ink. Cliff Lee is a question mark because of the recurring pain in his elbow. A.J. Burnett is expected to exercise his option and return, but that's not a sure thing, and he isn't a long-term answer even if he does. If those four are back, the fifth starter right now is probably David Buchanan.
Other options? Not many. The team will try to stretch out Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and will take a look at a few alternatives, but there are cobwebs in the cupboard.
So, Morgan puts in his innings, reaches for what he hopes is a low fastball, and works his way back under the relentless Arizona sun for the scattered, nearly snoozing retirees in the stands and the hard-eyed scouts who sit in the shade of the concourse overhang.
"The organization said: 'We've seen you at your best. Go out and show us you're healthy and ready,' " Morgan said. "I can't control what they think, but I can sure as heck force their hands. If I'm out there giving them results and I'm healthy, everything will fall right into place."
That would be fine with the Phillies, too. They would like to play in the fall again as well, although not necessarily this way.