PHILADELPHIA -- Just like the last time he made a high-stakes start in the postseason, the biggest blow against the Braves’ Charlie Morton came via a comebacker.
It was typical of a tough week in which little went to plan for Atlanta’s starting pitchers in the National League Division Series, aside from Kyle Wright’s six-inning scoreless gem in Game 2 on Wednesday night. Max Fried struggled through Game 1 on Tuesday afternoon coming off an illness. Spencer Strider, back from a month-long absence for a left oblique injury, was brilliant for two innings of Game 3 on Friday before his velocity dipped in a disastrous third.
And Game 4 starter Charlie Morton, the winningest pitcher in Major League history in postseason elimination games, was knocked down and eventually out on Saturday afternoon after taking a line drive off his throwing arm in the decisive third inning of the Braves’ season-ending 8-3 loss at Citizens Bank Park.
Just like that, the defending World Series champions -- 101-game winners during the regular season and NL East champs for the fifth consecutive season -- were out.
“Losing stinks,” said Morton, who has already signed with Atlanta for 2023. “Especially when you get a chance to finally taste the win.”
This was not the way the Braves drew up the series. Their starters ranked third of 15 NL teams in innings pitched during the regular season (890 1/3) and fifth in ERA (3.72), but their NLDS quartet combined to surrender 14 runs (12 earned) on 17 hits in 13 2/3 innings over four games.
Add it up and, even with Wright’s gem in a 3-0 win in Game 2, Atlanta's starters were 1-3 with a 7.90 ERA in the NLDS. Philadelphia took the lead in the first inning of Game 1, the third inning of Game 3 and the second inning of Game 4, and it never looked back on its way to the NL Championship Series.
One couldn’t help but wonder: Could it have been a different series with the Braves' starters at 100 percent?
“I don’t think that’s fair to Philly. We don’t want to make excuses,” said Wright. “I think they played really well, and they beat us. You never know what those guys are going through, too. You can play that game, but you don’t want to take any credit away from them.”
Morton’s start on Saturday landed 354 days after he threw 16 pitches on a fractured right fibula in the third inning of Game 1 of last year’s World Series, when he retired all three Astros hitters he faced following a Yuli Gurriel grounder off his shin. On Saturday afternoon against the Phillies, it was a painful case of déjà vu.
Leading off the second inning, Philadelphia third baseman Alec Bohm hit a 71.8 mph line drive that struck Morton’s right arm just inches from the elbow. It altered the course of Morton’s latest effort in a postseason elimination game. Before that moment, his fastball was ranging between 95.5-96.6 mph. After that moment, 11 of his 19 pitches for the remainder of the inning were curveballs, and the fastballs ranged between 93.7-95.3 mph.
The Phillies took advantage. Morton stayed in the game to strike out Bryson Stott before Jean Segura hit a curveball for a single and Brandon Marsh, batting ninth, smashed another curveball for a three-run home run and a 3-0 lead.
Morton managed to finish the inning and took the mound to warm up for the third, but he never threw a pitch. After several warmup tosses, he was met on the mound by Braves manager Brian Snitker and an athletic trainer before making the slow walk to the dugout.
“Once I saw him coming out, I knew,” Morton said.
Said Snitker: “They did X-ray him. There wasn’t anything in the joint. I'm thinking, ‘If it doesn't go well, then I think we're in a deeper hole.’ You know what, I watched the warmup pitches and didn't like it -- I just told him my eye test wasn't real good right there. He would have kept going. I just thought we were at a point where we don't need to try it.”
Morton conceded after the game that his elbow had begun to tighten up between innings. But still, he came out of the game reluctantly. Collin McHugh took over, had as much time as he needed to warm up and promptly surrendered an inside-the-park home run to J.T. Realmuto, which extended Philadelphia’s lead to 4-1.
“There’s nobody who wanted to be out there more than Charlie did,” McHugh said. “The decision was kind of taken away from him.”
“That’s where you have to give Snit a lot of credit,” Wright said. “I think he was looking after Charlie and wanted to protect him, but at the same time, he didn’t want to really risk anything. It helps when you have a good bullpen to make that decision, but just as a competitor, man, it sucks that that’s how it had to end.”
Said first baseman Matt Olson: “I think [Morton] was trying not to act like it was hurting him, but I think everybody could kind of see that he wasn't necessarily the same with it. It's a really unfortunate thing that happened. Charlie cares a bunch, and we love playing behind him. We had to pivot and try to win another way.”
Morton retreated to the clubhouse before returning to the dugout for moral support as the Braves tried to hit their way back into the game. The Phillies didn’t let it happen.
“I thought the guys were good. I thought we were in a good spot. I thought the team had energy,” Morton said. “But at the same time, I was in a weird spot there mentally, because I’m coming out of the game. I felt like I didn’t do my job, and that’s a tough feeling, because that game meant a lot to me and this team means a lot to me.”