'Big Game Morton' an unlikely playoff star

October 22nd, 2020

will get the ball from his manager Kevin Cash in a pivotal Game 3 of the World Series the way he did last weekend in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros, when the Rays were trying not to buy some space in baseball history only previously owned by the 2004 Yankees. They were trying not to lose a best-of-seven series after being ahead three games to none. Then Morton did for the Rays what he had done for the Astros against the ’17 Yankees. Morton won. And continued to be one of the best postseason pitchers of his time.

He has done this after the age of 30. It is a rare thing in any sport for someone to completely change his place in the history of that sport after his 30th birthday, especially a pitcher. Dennis Eckersley did it by becoming a closer. Morton has done what he has done as a starter.

Morton pitched his first postseason game in 2013 for the Pirates and lost, pitching well enough over 5 2/3 innings with three hits and two runs allowed. He was 29 at the time. No one, not even Morton, knew he wouldn’t really learn how to pitch, become the pitcher the Braves thought they might be getting when they selected him all the way back in the third round of the 2002 MLB Draft, until he got to Houston.

But he did.

Morton’s lifetime record was 46-71 before he became an Astro in 2017. Since then, his record is 47-18 just in the regular season. Do the math on that kind of turnaround. Something else no one could have known when everything changed for Morton in Houston? That the one big thing that gave Rays fans hope when their team was in that freefall against the Astros, was that Cash was giving the ball to Big Game Charlie Morton.

He pitched the way he had against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2017 AL Division Series, limiting the Astros to two hits and no runs while striking out six over 5 2/3 innings. He had an almost identical line against the Yankees three years ago: five innings, two hits, no runs, five strikeouts. His postseason record since he got to Houston is 7-1. He will try to make it 8-1 against the Dodgers on Friday night. In this postseason alone, Morton, who turns 37 next month, has given up one earned run and struck out 17 over 15 2/3 innings.

Three years after the baseball October when he started Game 7 of the ALCS, and then pitched the last four innings of Game 7 of the World Series against the Dodgers, he runs into the Dodgers again.

The following spring, after he had pitched the way he had in the two biggest games of his baseball life, I was standing with Morton on a back field at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in Florida, where both the Astros and the Nationals train. We were talking about the Astros-Yankees series that had ended just four months earlier. Some starting pitchers never get anywhere near a Game 7, and I wanted to know if, when he came out of the bullpen to start that game, if he felt as if he had his best stuff.

Morton smiled that day.

"Nope," he said. "There have been plenty of times when I thought I had my best stuff and didn't. I actually didn't think I'd pitched all that badly in Game 3 [when the Yankees had bounced him around pretty good at Yankee Stadium]. Sometimes it's not about stuff, just execution. You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what you were doing differently."

All in all that October, Morton combined to pitch nine innings in his two Game 7s, giving up four hits and one run while striking out nine. And being out there for the last out of the World Series.

"It's such an emotional thing, the postseason," Morton said. "There's all this drama, and all this buildup, and then, just like that, it's over. And now we're back trying to do it again."

The Astros never did. Everybody knows what has happened to them since. Morton left and signed a two-year, $30 million contract with the Rays prior to the 2019 season. He has, of course, been more than worth it at a time when star starting pitchers in baseball make a lot more and, in some cases, a whole lot more.

Morton pitched one season for the Braves in 2008, going 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA. He then spent a big chunk of his career with the Pirates. There was one stretch when he underwent four surgeries in five years: left hip, Tommy John, right hip, even one for a left hamstring injury that saw the muscle get torn away from his pelvic bone.

Morton kept coming back.

Finally, he found his way into the lights of baseball Octobers. He waited a long time to become the pitcher he imagined himself being when he was a kid, all the way into his 30s. Now here he is. A big Game 3 for Big Game Charlie Morton. We have talked a lot about what an unlikely October star his teammate is. How about the guy who gets the ball on Friday night? Look at where Charlie Morton was just four years ago. Look at where he is.