ATLANTA -- Two decades after being drafted by the Braves, Charlie Morton is authoring a feel-good biography that gets better with age. The 38-year-old right-hander is back where it all began, reaping the benefits of his diligence and determination.
A little more than five months after fracturing his right leg in the World Series, Morton guided the Braves toward a 7-6 win over the Reds on Friday night at Truist Park. He proved perfect through four innings and allowed two runs over 5 1/3 innings to help the reigning world champions win their first game of the year.
“He’s one of a kind,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “We all say he is one of one.”
Matt Olson recorded his first three hits with his new club and d’Arnaud collected three RBIs as the Braves bounced back from their Opening Day loss. But the story of the night was Morton, who added to the legend that was enhanced back in October, when he recorded three outs after his right leg was smashed by Yuli Gurriel’s 102.4 mph comebacker in Game 1 of the World Series against the Astros.
“I honestly didn’t even think about the leg,” Morton said. “At some point, you’ve just got to move on. I know what to expect of myself, and also I’m at a stage of my career where I think it’s just about being a pro and being accountable and doing my job.”
Nobody was complaining Friday about the job done by Morton, who allowed just two hits in his season debut. One of the runs charged to him scored on Tyler Stephenson’s single off A.J. Minter in the sixth.
“I think the biggest part from this is all the young guys on our staff get to watch him do this,” d’Arnaud said. “They get to learn from someone who puts in so much work and so much effort into his craft and tries to be a perfectionist. I think it benefits not only him, but the whole organization. We’re so grateful that he’s here.”
As Morton retired each of the first 12 Reds he faced, there was again reason to appreciate his journey. Yes, he’s just a little more than five months removed from a serious injury. But more importantly, he’s a little more than five years removed from reinventing himself and proving diligent yet again.
The Braves selected Morton in the third round of the 2002 MLB Draft, within which they also selected the long since-retired Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Morton debuted for Atlanta in '08, was traded to Pittsburgh in '09 and exited '16 with a 4.54 ERA through 162 appearances (161 starts).
Those numbers usually signal the beginning of the end for most 32-year-old pitchers. For Morton, it was just the beginning. In the 130 starts he made within the five seasons that followed, he posted a 3.34 ERA, won two World Series, notched two All-Star selections and collected $60 million worth of contracts.
"He's a guy that's been around," Reds manager David Bell said. "Most of our hitters have faced him and he just seems to continue to do what he does and get people out. He's got great stuff, he has the experience. He made it tough on us through the first five innings.”
History has proven it’s hard to keep Morton down. He altered the course of his career with the Astros in 2017 and then kept pitching after getting hit by Gurriel’s grounder in the World Series. He retired the next two batters in the second inning that night and only exited after his leg worsened as he exerted more force while striking out Jose Altuve to begin the bottom of the third.
“I don’t know if anybody can keep going at his level for as long as he has if you’re not [dedicated and disciplined],” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You look at all the guys like that, like the [Justin] Verlanders. They’re different guys. You’ve got to admire their dedication to their craft.”
So, has Morton allowed himself to reflect on his journey and appreciate where he is at this stage of his career?
“I have to acknowledge the end comes for us all and I’d rather it come on my own terms,” Morton said. “When I lay down at night, I know that feeling can come that you didn’t do your job, you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain or you let your team down. That’s something that is still in me.
“I think a big part of that is just not accepting the fact that, ‘Oh, this is great. I'm still playing and here we are, two decades later, look at me.’ I think I still feel vulnerable in that way.”