LOS ANGELES -- Charlie Morton took a few tentative steps off the mound, staring, the moment frozen in time. He saw Jose Altuve field a ground ball off Corey Seager's bat. Morton watched Altuve make the short throw to first. Then he clenched both fists, hunching his shoulders, bracing as the Astros enveloped him on the field.
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Perhaps it is unfair to call Morton, at the tail end of his best professional season, an unlikely World Series hero. Still, what he did in the Astros' 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Dodgers was not even on the team's own script. Blanking Los Angeles for the final four innings, Morton earned the win in the most significant game of his life.
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"I'm watching it and I'm thinking, 'Is this really happening? Is this really the third out?'" Morton said. "In this series, it just seemed like it was a dogfight. It was exhausting. It was exhausting to watch, let alone play in it. You were thinking, 'Is this real? This is the conclusion here? Altuve fields this ball and it's the end of it?' It's a long season. It's been a long playoff. It's been a long Series. To have it come down to that last out, and you're watching it, it's hard to believe."
Heading into Game 7, Astros manager A.J. Hinch did not envision Lance McCullers recording just seven outs, but the starter's wildness necessitated an early exit. From there, Hinch turned to Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano and Chris Devenski, who brought Houston to the sixth with a lead. Even then, the plan was for Devenski to continue.
But with two outs and a runner on third, L.A. manager Dave Roberts elected to intentionally walk Marwin Gonzalez and pinch-hitter Evan Gattis, forcing Hinch to use a pinch-hitter. So on came Morton on three days' rest.
"I was comfortable with him closing the game around three innings, but he did it with four," Hinch said. "As much as I scripted this game, it never plays out the way you expect."
Initially dialing his fastball as high as 99 mph, Morton eventually settled into his assignment, reducing velocity as he focused on crafting perfect pitches. The sixth bled into the seventh. The seventh into the eighth. At one point, fellow starter Dallas Keuchel began warming. Had things grown tense, the Astros were prepared to engineer what pitching coach Brent Strom called his "storybook ending," using Justin Verlander to close out the game on no rest.
It never came to that. Morton finished things by himself, just as Peacock did over the final 3 2/3 innings of World Series Game 3. Combining those performances with McCullers' four-inning outing in American League Championship Series Game 7, Houston became the first team to finish three wins in the same postseason with a reliever contributing at least 3 2/3 innings.
"Morton just really -- the velocity, the slider, he was really on point tonight," Roberts said. "We just couldn't get the hit when we needed to."
Perhaps it was fitting that Morton would end his season this way, once again shattering expectations. Entering the year, he owned an uninspiring 4.54 ERA over nine seasons with the Braves, Pirates and Phillies. A velocity jump during an injury-hampered 2016 season prompted the Astros' analytics staff to advise signing Morton, who, at 33, averages nearly 5 mph faster on his sinker than he did as a 24-year-old rookie.
When Strom heard that the Astros had acquired the right-hander, he called friends who worked for the Pirates. Their experience was with a pitcher unlike the one who showed up to camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., beginning a journey that would culminate with the final 12 outs of a World Series championship.
"Everything that's happened in my career, I've learned to appreciate it," Morton said. "I've learned to accept failure for what it is. Had I not won, had I not come to the Astros, I still would be extremely grateful for every opportunity that I've had. But I'll cherish this for the rest of my life. This is an honor. It's an honor to win a World Series for the city and for Southeast Texas and for all of Texas."