Morton has rare blemish for otherwise thriving Braves rotation

May 16th, 2024

ATLANTA -- Even the best starting rotations are bound to encounter a rough night.

Such was the case for the Braves, who saw last just three innings in a 7-1 loss to the Cubs on Wednesday night at Truist Park. A three-run first quickly erased Atlanta’s bid to record three straight shutouts for the first time since it turned the trick against the Yankees and Giants from Aug. 15-18 last season.

“You get spoiled by these guys,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s going to happen. It was just one of those innings where a ball is just out of the reach of guys and a couple really tough plays. It happens.”

Do the Braves really have one of the game’s best rotations, despite the fact Spencer Strider made just one healthy start before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery? Well, the numbers support the argument, especially if you look only at the results of the current rotation.

Allan Winans and Darius Vines combined to make a few starts to fill Strider’s void before Bryce Elder came up to fill the spot on a long-term basis. In 19 games since April 22 (the day after Vines’ final start) through Tuesday, Braves starters posted an MLB-best 1.92 ERA.

That number rose to 2.10 over the past 20 games after Morton surrendered four runs -- three earned -- while needing 76 pitches to complete three innings. The 40-year-old hurler surrendered an opposite-field leadoff homer to Mike Tauchman on the opening pitch and then watched helplessly as Seiya Suzuki’s comebacker hit off his shoe and landed in right field for a double.

It was just one of those nights for Morton, who allowed an infield single and hit Pete Crow-Armstrong with a pitch while the bases were loaded as the Cubs outfielder was trying to bunt. This all occurred during the three-run first.

“When you let guys put the ball in play, you have to live and die by where the ball goes,” Morton said. “I’ve had three balls hit really hard at me and gotten three outs. And what happened tonight in the first inning, I don’t even know where that falls in.”

Morton posted a 5.29 ERA over his first three starts of the season. But he entered Wednesday having produced a 1.73 ERA over the four starts that followed. He had pitched into the sixth inning in each of his previous seven outings and he had completed seven innings in two of his three most recent starts.

So, one bad outing, or really just one unfortunate inning, won’t change how the Braves feel about what Morton is contributing to the middle or back end of the rotation.

“He’s been great,” Snitker said. “God, he’s been throwing as well as he has since he got here [before the 2021 season], honestly, before tonight.”

With Strider out, Max Fried, Chris Sale and Reynaldo López have all pitched like legitimate frontline starters. López ranks second among all MLB pitchers with a 1.34 ERA and Sale ranks 16th with a 2.54 ERA. Fried’s first two innings of the year were ugly, but he has produced a 1.85 ERA over the 43 2/3 innings that have followed.

Elder became an All-Star after beginning last year at the Triple-A level. He has pitched into the sixth inning and allowed two runs or less in three of the four starts he’s made since joining Atlanta’s rotation.

Strider entered this season as a Cy Young Award favorite and how significant his absence is won’t truly be known before the season is complete. But the Braves are persevering without him.

Braves starting pitchers have completed seven-plus innings 10 times this season. The Phillies (13) are the only other team with more such starts.

Fried has completed six-plus innings of no-hit ball in two of his past three starts and Sale has completed seven innings four times. Giants ace Logan Webb (five) entered Wednesday as the only MLB pitcher with more seven-plus inning starts.

“I just like watching our guys go out there and compete,” Morton said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch our guys do that. They are throwing the ball really well.”