At 21, Morales to get opportunity of a lifetime

DENVER -- His fastball -- the sizzling pitch that often topped 98 mph and came from a bizarre angle and landed in the catcher's mitt from the left side, usually the domain of soft-throwing crafty pitchers -- was most certainly impressive enough to get him to the majors. It took almost five years for Franklin Morales to tame that fastball, and really to tame himself. Those who know him well say that Morales, just 21 years old, can be excitable. Well wouldn't you be if you threw so hard and the ball just ached to come out of your hand?

While in the minor leagues in the summer of 2007, Morales still had not saddled that incendiary pitch. Although he had accumulated a 3.52 ERA in 112 2/3 innings in the minors, Morales had also walked 58, far too many for any pitcher to be considered for a call-up to the majors.

Yet when the Rockies were stung with injuries to Rodrigo Lopez, Aaron Cook and Jason Hirsh in August, Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd summoned the hurler with the golden arm, the same one who was second in the California League with 89 walks last season.

"Truth be known," O'Dowd said, "we ran out of everyone else."

Now Morales, who has just three wins in his major league career, will attempt to send his team to the World Series with a start on Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. Only four players in major league history aged 21 or younger have ever won the clinching game of a postseason series: Fernando Valenzuela, Bret Saberhagen, Jaret Wright and Whitey Ford. Perhaps Morales will be added to that list.

"I feel normal, I feel fine," said Morales after Sunday night's 4-1 win by the Rockies. "Now I have the opportunity to pitch in the most important game of my life. I'm very prepared for tomorrow. I feel very honored to have the game that could take us to the World Series."

Morales hasn't shown any nerves. After Game 3, he slowly and calmly changed into a pair of jeans. After answering a few questions, he went and pestered veteran reliever, and fellow Venezuelan, Jorge Julio, with whom the rookie has established a close relationship. Morales lives with Julio in Denver. Often during the season, Morales sought out Julio for advice, and one particular conversation stuck with both men.

While struggling in the minors for a few starts, Morales phoned Julio and asked what he should do. Julio was no fool. He had seen that fastball, too. He knew Morales could be a star.

"I don't want to see you in September as one of those courtesy call-ups who got brought up because you had a nice season," Julio told him in that conversation. "I want you to be here as one of the important parts of this organization."

Morales was called up in August and thrived in September, accumulating a 2.88 ERA while posting a 3-0 record for the month. Colorado won all five of Morales' starts in September, though the rookie has had problems at Coors Field; Morales is just 1-1 with a 6.23 ERA in Denver.

Of course, most of Morales' success comes with the fastball, though he's now begun to mix in a breaking ball. Also, the ball comes out of Morales' hand from a peculiar angle. O'Dowd said that Morales' success this season has come because the rookie has finally mastered his delivery.

"When he stays in his delivery he's fine," O'Dowd said. "It's a big step for him tomorrow."

Earlier this season, Morales sought to play catch with reliever LaTroy Hawkins. When Morales released the ball, Hawkins saw that it came from almost on top of his head. Hawkins could barely catch the ball.

"No wonder you're hard to hit," Hawkins told him.

Hawkins can only shake his head at how Morales and Colorado's other rookies (Manny Corpas and Ubaldo Jimenez) have carried the team to the playoffs.

"It's one of those things where they're dreaming," Hawkins said. "And I hope they don't wake up for another five wins."

One of those wins could come from Morales, who allowed three runs in just three innings in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Phillies. The magnitude of Monday's game prompted Julio to sit the rookie down for a lecture on Sunday.

"You have an opportunity tomorrow to be a name to remember or be a name that's quickly forgotten," Julio told Morales. "Do your best."

Morales quietly nodded and then walked away.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.