- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

Before John Lannan, Alex Morales was the first pitcher in the Washington Nationals organization to make the jump from Class A Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg and then to Class AAA Columbus this season.

While Lannan has taken the next step to the big leagues, Morales has dealt with a setback. But 2007 remains a large leap forward for the wiry right-handed reliever from Chicago.

“He’s made a real fast move,” assistant general manager Bob Boone said. “He has a chance to pitch in the majors, and he has a chance to be a good pitcher in the major leagues.”

Morales began the season in Woodbridge, Va., before moving to Harrisburg in early May. After three weeks in the Eastern League, it was on to Columbus. He was pitching well for the Clippers before a couple of rough outings.

Morales went on the disabled list July 3 with shoulder tendinitis. He went home at one point to spend time with his ailing mother. He was sent to Viera, Fla., to rehab and made one appearance for the Gulf Coast League Nationals.

Now Morales is back with Harrisburg, where he struggled at the end of the 2006 season. He allowed one run in an inning of work in his return Tuesday night.

“We don’t know for sure [how long he’ll stay,]” Boone said. “As of now, we’ve just assigned him to Class AA.”

This season has been quite a journey for Morales, and it has mirrored his rise from afterthought to prospect. Morales was a 46th-round draft pick by the organization out of Oakton Community College in Illinois in 2003.

Few players drafted that late make the big leagues, and those who do are often draft-and-follows — junior college players who go back to school for a year of development before the team makes a decision. Morales was not one of those players, and he even spent a few days with an independent league team before signing with the Expos.

“My college coach [Mike Pinto] was the pitching coach for the Joliet Jackhammers in independent ball,” Morales said. “When I got drafted I wasn’t really happy with what happened, so he said, ‘Why don’t you come pitch for me for a little bit until all the negotiations and the contract stuff is ready?’ So I did, and it was pretty fun.”

Morales, who turns 25 in December, had moderate success in his first two full seasons in the minors before pitching well for Potomac last season. That earned him a promotion to Harrisburg, but he struggled (5.74 ERA in 152/3 innings).

This season he returned to Potomac and dominated. He allowed no earned runs in 131/3 innings, a convincing argument for another chance at Class AA. He extended the streak to 25 innings before allowing three runs May 28, which also was his last appearance for the Senators before being promoted again.

“I think it’s just getting used to pitching,” Morales said. “I went to a junior college, and there wasn’t really good competition, so it has taken me longer to learn how to pitch. This year in the offseason I did a lot of work with video just trying to get back to where I was in college with my normal stuff and having that work for me.”

At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, Morales is far from imposing when he stands on the rubber, but there is plenty of life in his right arm. He consistently pitches in the low 90s with his fastball, and his breaking ball, while inconsistent at times, has plenty of bite for him to succeed in the majors.

Boone cited improved command as a big part of Morales‘ success this season. Even if he does finish the season in Harrisburg, the pitcher from Chicago who nearly went undrafted out of college could earn an invitation to spring training and have a chance to make his big league debut some time next season.

“He’s a little guy, and I bet he was real little in college. He probably weighed 130 pounds when we picked him,” Boone said. “That’s why we pick for 50 rounds. The odds are against them, but you have to remember that Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t drafted out of high school. In three years, players change.”

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