Last night, Franklin Morales pitched the best game of his major league career.
Throwing 109 pitches, Morales allowed just three hits and two walks in seven innings of work, striking out seven Mariners along the way and matching Felix Hernandez step-for-step in an impressive pitchers' duel.
His efforts were graded by Bill James' Game Score metric as a 76, four points higher than his previous best recorded in his rookie year (2007) against the San Diego Padres. Not only was it the best in his career, but the second best start by a Red Sox pitcher in 2012, tied with Josh Beckett's very similar outing against the Mariners back on May 15, and behind Clay Buchholz' complete game shutout against the Orioles on June 7.
Interestingly, Morales didn't appear quite as unhittable last night as he had in previous outings.
While the Mariners certainly didn't manage much in the way of baserunners, Morales didn't induce quite as many swings-and-misses as he had in games past. Though nine is still a respectable figure, given that it came on 23 more pitches than in his last outing, it represents a definite falloff from 12 against the Braves and 14 against the Cubs. The results could be seen in a couple of long plate appearances from the likes of Jesus Montero, building up Morales' pitch count despite facing only two more batters than in his outing against Atlanta.
The one common thread through Morales' starts so far has been weak opposition. The Cubs and Mariners are bottom dwellers, and while the Braves have been decent this year, they have just an average .317 wOBA. This trend won't change soon, either, as Morales' next two starts will likely come against the Athletics and the Rays, or at worst the White Sox.
Still, there's something to be said for reaching new heights, and doing it the right way. With a 0.89 FIP in his three starts, Morales could perform quite a bit worse against top-tier teams and still come out smelling like a rose. His velocity is the same as it was as a reliever, and up a couple miles per hour across the board from his time starting in Colorado, and his 11.7% swinging strike rate is one of the best in the business.
Morales won't make true believers of everyone for a while to come, and certainly not until he's recorded some outs against the Yankees of the world. But for now, he's trending upward even from his best days, looking for all the world like the pitcher the scouts saw when they judged him a top-8 prospect in all of baseball.