ST. LOUIS — The audition starts anew on opening day for Matt Morris.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ ace pitcher is in the final year of his contract and facing an uncertain future with the only team he has played for. The Cardinals’ offer for an extension represented a big pay cut, reflecting doubts resulting from a tough 2003 season, so he must prove himself all over again beginning April 5 against the Brewers.
Morris, who is making $12.5 million this year and was offered $15.5 million for two years after winning 11 games last season, said the contract won’t be on his mind. His goal is to perform like a No. 1 starter.
“I’m just going to go out and pitch and let what I’m doing on the field speak for itself,” Morris said. “It’s just really not important right now.
“I’m just trying to take it one day at a time and hopefully, come April 5, I’ll be right where I want to be.”
He said next year will take care of itself.
“I love St. Louis and I love the fans,” Morris said. “It’s just this year I’m going to pitch, then I’ll sign with the Redbirds later ... maybe.”
Early last season, Morris said he might have hurt himself trying to be an iron man while closer Jason Isringhausen was recuperating from offseason shoulder surgery. He threw back-to-back shutouts in May and threw in a third complete game.
By June, Morris was worn out and out-of-sync. As a result, his fastball lost speed. When he returned, injuries dogged him. A line drive broke his right hand in mid-July and then he sprained an ankle.
The Cardinals are counting on a healthy Isringhausen and a revamped bullpen to take some of the load off of Morris, whose 50 victories during the past three seasons is five back of the leaders (Mark Mulder of Oakland and Russ Ortiz of Atlanta) during that span.
“We were missing Izzy and I just wanted to pitch, pitch, pitch,” Morris said. “If I’m going to have a tired or weak shoulder in the middle of the season because of that, there’s no sense.
“It’s more valuable for me to stay strong for six or seven innings all year instead of going eight a bunch of times and then have a month when I just can’t get anybody out.”
Another strategy for getting to the finish line is more changeups. Morris changed his grip this spring and has made extensive use of the pitch, which should reduce wear and tear.
“It can do nothing but help,” Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny said. “It’s probably not going to be a pitch you’re going to use in a situation where it can hurt you because it’s his third-best pitch.
“I do think once you establish it, it just adds to his effectiveness.”
Morris has learned from experience he doesn’t always need to overpower the hitters. Tricking them will do.
“I can tell my velocity as a whole from when I signed has gone down,” Morris said. “When I was younger I got up and heaved the ball and I was beating people with speed, but when the bats catch up you’ve got to learn how to pitch, and I think I’ve learned how to do that over the years.”
During his mid-season lull last year, Morris’ fastball was 83-84 mph. At his best, it’s in the mid-90s.
“Movement is the key,” he said. “I worry less and less about velocity and more about just the action or sharpness of the pitch.”