HOUSTON -- The status of the Astros' American League Division Series rotation behind Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel remains up in the air heading into the regular season's final week. But veteran right-hander Charlie Morton continues to make quite a case for inclusion.
Morton was strong and remarkably efficient in seven innings vs. the Angels on Saturday, allowing just one run on four hits and just 81 pitches in a 6-2 Houston victory that kept the Astros in the hunt for the best record in the AL.
"My sinker was moving pretty good today," Morton said of his outing, which included five strikeouts. "They were aggressive with stacked righties. I threw some decent changeups and sinkers in, and fortunately the balls they put in play found some guys."
On the season, the 33-year-old power pitcher is 13-7 with a 3.63 ERA, the 13 wins representing a career high for the 10-year veteran. Best of all, Morton appears to be peaking at an opportune time. In four September starts, Morton is 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings.
"He's had a very good season," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "The discussion underway is, 'What's the best use of him?' He could very much make a start in the playoffs. He could be an effective weapon out of the bullpen if we go that route.
"He's an effective pitcher against both righties and lefties, his velocity has held for six straight months, and he's found a way to keep his mechanics in order and keep quality strikes coming."
Morton's strike-throwing ability was particularly impressive Saturday, mowing through the first five innings on just 42 pitches with a pair of double plays while facing the minimum 15 batters.
"He's nasty," Hinch said of Morton, whose fastball routinely reached 95-96 mph with late movement. "He's really good. When he gets inside the strike zone and the hitters get threatened, they come out swinging, and when he's throwing quality strikes, he gets some early outs."
Morton found trouble in the sixth after Luis Valbuena's leadoff double and a hit-by-pitch, but he retired each of the next three batters to extinguish the threat, including a strikeout of Michael Trout looking on the inside corner to end it.
"Any time Charlie goes out there, he could have a game like this against anybody," catcher Evan Gattis said. "It doesn't really matter what guys' strengths are as much. With him, his pitching strength is going to beat a lot of hitters' strengths. A pitch in, a lot of people cover in well, but it's definitely a strength for him, and he's got to roll with it."
With additional off-days shrinking starting rotations to four in the postseason, only two of Morton, Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh will earn spots, with the others likely to have long-relief roles.
"These aren't really audition outings as much as they are giving us time to line things up the way that we would see it," Hinch said of his team's final eight games, in which all four will make starts. "We'll continue to talk about it internally. There's a lot of baseball left, and we have a ton of time on our hands to make the right decision."
Each right-hander has a compelling case. The youthful McCullers, if healthy, could return to the powerful form that made him an All-Star in the season's first half, when he went 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 16 starts. McHugh, a trusted veteran, is 14-0 with a 2.83 ERA in 18 September and October starts for the Astros since 2014. And Peacock has been a revelation in 2017 with his ability to draw swings and misses, boasting a career-best 2.98 ERA with 159 strikeouts in 127 innings.
"It's a good problem to have," Morton said of the potential crunch. "Our mentality is good. I think as a team we're in a really good spot, and I'm really excited to get into October."
As evidence of that mentality, Morton says he'll happily accept any role deemed necessary by his coaches.
"I have no idea," Morton said of his potential role. "I'd like the ball whenever. Put me in whenever."