Morton overcomes messy 1st in impact start

'It was like I was pitching in two different games almost'

October 20th, 2021

LOS ANGELES -- By the seventh batter of the bottom of the first inning Tuesday, was windmilling his arms in the visitors' bullpen at Dodger Stadium, stretching and loosening in preparation for the worst. By the eighth batter, Chavez was throwing with intent, aware of the Braves’ potentially imminent need for him.

On the stadium mound, betrayed nothing with his body language, even though he, too, understood the stakes. The Braves were already behind by two runs in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The bases were loaded. Continued damage threatened not only to give the Dodgers the game and new life in the series, but also to throw their own pitching plans into disarray with a bullpen game already looming on Wednesday.

Finally, on his 34th pitch, Morton jammed Chris Taylor to induce an inning-ending flare to shortstop. With the worst behind him, Morton returned for the second as a changed pitcher, delivering four scoreless innings in what became a 6-5, could-have-been-worse loss to the Dodgers.

“It was like I was pitching in two different games almost,” Morton said. “The juxtaposition between the first inning and the rest of it was just very extreme.”

The most troubling aspect of Morton’s early issues was the fact that they were so un-Morton-like. Struggling to find the strike zone, Morton walked leadoff man Mookie Betts, then allowed a homer to Corey Seager on a two-strike curveball that hovered near the top of the zone. It was the 401st curve Morton had thrown in his postseason career, and the first that landed over an outfield fence.

Three more walks would follow, making Morton the first pitcher to allow four free passes and a home run in a single postseason inning. His wildness prompted a hurried phone call to the bullpen and plenty of consternation from Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, but his escape gave him the time he needed to fix things.

Unsatisfied with his four-seam fastball, which he failed to locate in the strike zone on three of his four first-inning walks, Morton curbed its usage in favor of his changeup and cutter. That allowed him to rediscover his usual control; after throwing 20 of his 34 pitches out of the zone in the first inning, Morton threw just 21 balls the rest of the way.

“He kind of seemed to get a second wind, so to speak,” Snitker said.

Had the Braves managed to secure the victory, Morton would have become the 11th pitcher in postseason history to walk six batters in an outing, throw a wild pitch and earn a win regardless, joining such luminaries as Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Lefty Gomez and Babe Ruth. While Morton fell short of that obscure accomplishment, he still did plenty of good for the Braves, who were in danger of requiring eight-plus relief innings.

In that sense, Morton did what he normally does in October: give his team precisely what it needs. A day prior to his start, the 37-year-old right-hander had reflected at length on the most memorable evening of his career, when he pitched the final four innings at Dodger Stadium to earn the win for the Astros in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. Morton spoke about the anxiousness he felt not only that night on the mound, but in general as a pitcher without much overwhelming success until that year.

“I guess I just never thought of myself as someone that was actually going to impact a team in that way,” Morton said.

He now has a significant history of doing so, and if the Braves are to recover from Tuesday’s setback to win the NL pennant, they may need Morton to impact them in that way again. The veteran is lined up for Game 7 (if necessary) on Sunday night, just as he was in both the 2017 and ’20 ALCS, making his ability to adjust all the more important.

“I do think an outing like that, you can definitely learn from that a lot,” Morton said. “In some ways, I think that outing was very, very rewarding, and in some ways, it was just a very strange place for me to be.”