From the day the Braves drafted Charlie Morton, way back in 2002, he was always meant to carve a path here: earning his 100th career win while donning an Atlanta uniform.
“Took me a really long time,” said Morton, who became the first pitcher since Hideo Nomo (Dodgers, 2003) to win his first and 100th games with the same team while winning elsewhere in between. “I’m glad I got there, and I’m glad I got there with this group. It was a special night.”
Only his first four victories came with Atlanta, though, before trades and free agency periods carried him through a circuitous career in four other cities. Looking back on how it began, with a 6.15 ERA his rookie season that prompted a trade to Pittsburgh, Morton hardly recognizes the pitcher he’s become.
“In ’08, several times I didn’t even look forward to going to the ballpark because I was not pitching well,” said Morton, adding that he “felt lost” and doubted that he belonged on a Braves team that still featured Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones.
Results worsened for Morton before they got better, and after a disastrous 2010 season (7.57 ERA) the Pirates asked him to make some major changes: to his arm slot, his delivery and his identity as a pitcher.
“It’s kind of like, you must be kinda close to being on your way out, for that to happen,” Morton said. “Luckily that worked tremendously.”
The altered approach he honed in 2011 is still with him today, after another trade (to Philadelphia), four surgeries and a pair of successful two-year stints with Houston and Tampa Bay. He pitched in the World Series for both the Astros and Rays, winning a title in 2017 with Houston in no small part due to his stellar relief performance in Game 7 of the World Series.
Finally, having inked a one-year, $15 million deal this past November, Morton returned to where it all began.
The 37-year-old’s renaissance in Atlanta has been particularly fruitful of late. After taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning last time out against the Cardinals, he topped that with his first double-digit strikeout performance of the season. Wildness played a role at times, as Morton walked two batters and hit two more. But he leaned on his curveball, throwing it a whopping 45 times, to consistently put the Mets away without any harm.
The lone hit Morton allowed came to a pinch-hitting pitcher, oddly enough, as Jerad Eickhoff legged out an infield single on a dribbler to third. Morton retired seven of his final eight batters from there, including a pair of swinging strikeouts on buried curveballs.
“I felt like his curveball’s gotten even better,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson, who provided the game’s only scoring on a three-run homer in the third. “I think everybody knows that’s his pitch.”
Everyone knows it’s Morton’s pitch, and yet few seem to be able to hit it these days. The beauty of what Morton is doing now, in his 14th season, is that he’s still adapting and finding new ways to get outs.
Earlier this season, he pounded two-seamers and scratched his head when opponents knocked them around the park. Lately, he’s simplified to what’s primarily a two-pitch mix of mid-90s four-seamers and a curveball that’s in the 97th percentile for spin rate.
Those tools are different than the ones he used back in 2008; his fastball averaged 92.2 mph back then, and his curveball sat fourth in his arsenal. He’s different off the mound now, too, as a husband and a father.
But from that first day on the mound with Atlanta to now, all the trials and injuries and different uniforms have helped craft a career Morton wouldn’t change.
“It’s been such an awesome experience,” he said. “Not only the successes, but the failures.”