LOS ANGELES -- When the Braves send Charlie Morton to the mound to start Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will attempt to block any memories of the last time Morton pitched at Dodger Stadium during the postseason.
“I try to forget it, but I remember,” Roberts said of the four dominant innings Morton delivered to complete the Astros’ 2017 World Series win over Los Angeles.
Morton certainly remembers that night, when the Astros won a world championship and the baseball world began recognizing him as a big game pitcher. He’ll spend Tuesday night attempting to help the Braves earn a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Dodgers.
“There’s not many other guys you’d want on the mound in a big spot other than him,” former Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
Fifteen years after they were both selected by the Braves in the 2002 MLB Draft, Morton and McCann were reunited with the Astros with that '17 squad. They teamed to form Houston’s battery over the final four innings of the Game 7 win over the Dodgers.
“He never wants to disappoint anyone,” former Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “While all of us were thrilled he got that moment, he was just relieved he didn’t let anybody down.”
This was essentially what Morton said when asked about his memories of the great relief appearance against the Dodgers. The lanky hurler was 34 when he finally enjoyed a breakthrough season after joining the Astros in 2017. He credits his postseason success to the confidence Hinch showed in him by sticking with him after he allowed the Yankees seven runs in 3 2/3 innings of ALCS Game 3 that October.
Morton responded with five scoreless frames in a Game 7 win over the Yankees that concluded with Lance McCullers Jr.'s four scoreless innings of relief. As the Astros prepared for Game 7 of the World Series, Hinch debated whether to start Morton, eventually opting to put him in the bullpen, while McCullers started.
“Charlie, I expected him to be either one of two things, either a bridge in the middle of the game or potentially close out the game depending on the score,” Hinch said. “The way the game went, we kept pushing Charlie back and once he came in, I told McCann, ‘This is the guy that’s going to finish it.’”
Morton entered in the sixth inning and retired just one of the first four batters he faced. Andre Ethier’s RBI single cut the Astros’ lead to 5-1, but that marked the end of the Dodgers’ offensive production.
“From the first pitch, I knew he was finishing that game,” McCann said. “He was throwing power two-seamers and the curveball and it was unhittable.”
In previous seasons, Morton might have wilted. But the confidence Hinch had in the veteran provided substantial long-term and short-term benefits. The rejuvenated hurler produced a 1.45 ERA over nine postseason appearances beginning with 2017 ALCS Game 7 and ending with 2020 ALCS Game 7.
Morton retired each of the 11 batters he faced after Ethier’s single. The initial thought was he would complete just three innings, but as he began rolling, Hinch decided he would not pinch-hit for Morton when the pitcher’s spot came up in the eighth.
“He never told me this, but he might have thought he was coming out [after the eighth] because his at-bat was coming up,” Hinch said. “We told him, ‘Just go up there and stand as far back in the batter’s box and take three strikes and come back to the dugout.’ He reminded me that he was going to strike out if he did that. We had a nice little laugh before he did that. And then he went up there and struck out and then went out and closed the game.”
Morton, who is in full support of the universal DH, had no problem not swinging. He missed most of the 2016 season after his left hamstring was torn off the bone while running to first base.
“I do remember just getting on a little bit of a roll and [Hinch] saying, 'You're going to hit,'” Morton said. “We decided I wasn't going to swing and I was just going to stand there. I like any time anyone tells me not to swing a bat because I hate hitting.”
Morton closed his 52-pitch relief effort with a Chase Utley strikeout and consecutive groundouts by Chris Taylor and Corey Seager. He was mobbed by his Astros teammates, demonstrating how beloved the hurler has become in any clubhouse he's been in over the years.
“He’s everything you want in a teammate, everyone you want in someone to show up to work every day,” Hinch said. “Him being on the mound [for the final out], it’s hard to say it’s more meaningful, but it’s incredibly special because of his persona.”