Morton playoff-ready as magic number hits 3

September 29th, 2021

ATLANTA -- With the emphatic yell he projected at the conclusion of a 2-1 win over the Phillies on Tuesday night at Truist Park, Will Smith expressed both relief and anxious anticipation as the Braves took yet another step toward clinching a fourth consecutive National League East title.

“I can see the excitement with the guys in the clubhouse and out on the field,” said. “You see a lot more fist pumps and more yelling and excitement. It’s just that time of year, and we’re in a really good spot, where we’re playing games that everyone wants to play.”  

With Morton delivering stellar innings, Smith overcoming Eddie Rosario’s error and Jorge Soler driving in Atlanta’s only two runs, the Braves maintained the possibility of clinching at the conclusion of this three-game series.

Games remaining: 2 vs. Phillies, 3 vs. Mets and 1 vs. Rockies if necessary

Standings update: The Braves are 3 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Phillies and four games ahead in the loss column with five or six games remaining. The sixth game, a makeup of the postponed Sept. 16 contest against Colorado, would be played Monday at Truist Park, but only if the Braves and Phillies are separated by a half-game at Sunday's conclusion.

Magic number for division title: Atlanta’s magic number is three. Any combination of Braves wins and Phillies losses that add up to three would seal the deal.

This did have the feel of a postseason game as the Morton vs. Zack Wheeler matchup lived up to its expectations. Soler delivered a two-run single in the third, and there really weren’t any other true scoring threats until Rosario allowed Matt Vierling’s fly ball to pop out of his glove with one out in the ninth.  

But two days after making an escape after walking the bases loaded in San Diego, Smith limited the damage to just one run. His game-ending strikeout of Freddy Galvis gave the Braves the series-opening win that increased their division lead and also enhanced the possibility of going through the regular season’s final week in less-stressful fashion.  

“Getting that win in the first game, I’ve found the last few years to be big,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Tomorrow is a new day. Hopefully, Max [Fried] goes out and does what he’s capable of.”

Fried, who is tied with Max Scherzer for the National League’s lowest ERA (1.78) since the All-Star break, will attempt to follow the lead of Morton, who notched 10 strikeouts while limiting the Phillies to three hits over seven scoreless innings.  

“That’s exactly why we hired him,” Snitker said of Morton. “The moment doesn’t get too big. I know that.” 

After the Phillies opened the game with consecutive singles, Morton retired 21 of the last 24 batters he faced. The easy-going 37-year-old hurler provided a glimpse of the stone-cold approach he has consistently displayed while posting a 2.27 ERA over his past 10 postseason appearances, dating back to Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS with the Astros.  

“Getting through that [first] inning was big,” Morton said. “That’s tough having guys on first and second with nobody out against a team like that. But we got through it.”

Having a lineup filled with power hitters certainly stands as one of the best strengths the Braves will take into the postseason. But with Morton and Fried, they possess a couple of front-line hurlers who are capable of matching up with the game’s other elite starters on any given night. 

Fried ranks third in the NL with a 2.42 ERA dating back to June 17. Morton ranks seventh among this group with the 2.77 ERA he has produced within this same span.

Morton signed a one-year, $15 million contract last winter and has since earned himself a one-year, $20 million deal for next season. His return to the Braves organization has been a rousing success. But as the past few years have shown, his best might be still to come in October.

“In the clubhouse, the guys can taste where we are,” Morton said. “Hopefully, it ends in a little celebration here.”