Charlie Morton had history on his side when he took the mound for yet another winner-take-all start on Saturday against his old team. He just needed to turn that sterling past into a productive present, to give the Rays an exciting immediate future.
Morton delivered with a nearly flawless outing, which has become typical for the veteran right-hander this time of year. He yielded two hits over 5 2/3 innings in a 4-2 win over the Astros, leading his team to its first American League pennant since 2008.
“We're lucky to have Charlie Morton,” manager Kevin Cash said. “For a group that doesn't have a wealth of experience in these roles, Charlie does. He's been there, done that and lined up really well for us.”
Morton was able to squelch whatever momentum the Astros had after beating the Rays in three straight in the AL Championship Series and rendering Tampa Bay’s hot start to the series obsolete. The right-hander, over time, has quietly joined a small pack of pitchers known for doing their best work in October, and Saturday’s performance at Petco Park just added to it.
This was Morton’s fourth winner-take-all game and his third as a starter. Including his scoreless outing against Houston, Morton has tallied 19 2/3 innings in those starts and has yielded a single run (0.46 ERA).
How exclusive is this fraternity? Morton is the fifth pitcher in postseason history with multiple scoreless starts in winner-take-all games, joining Justin Verlander, John Smoltz, Bret Saberhagen and Madison Bumgarner -- all of whom have two.
And Morton has four career wins in winner-take-all games, twice as many as anyone else in postseason history.
Does the repeated success make him more comfortable in October?
“I wouldn't say I'm comfortable,” Morton said. “But after the first couple, when I actually realized that I could do it, then it became something that I kind of look forward to a little bit.”
Morton followed that up by revealing he’s “dealt with doubt” his entire career and has had bouts when he’s lacked belief in himself. Those fleeting moments don’t stick around long – he finds comfort in an organization wanting to hand him the ball when a win is the only acceptable outcome, as was the case on Saturday.
“I just kind of get in a little bit of a groove there,” Morton said, adding the high-energy atmosphere -- even without fans in the stands -- gave him a boost.
Prior to the start of Game 7, there was buzz around Morton and Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr., who in 2017 worked together as a tandem twice in crucial postseason games. They shut out the Yankees in Game 7 of the pennant-clincher, and piggybacked again in the Astros’ Game 7 championship clincher over the Dodgers.
This time around, Morton did just fine on his own. McCullers was out of the game after throwing 75 pitches into the fourth, while Morton, typically efficient, was up to only 49 pitches through the fifth.
“This was the best I've seen Charlie in the time I've been able to catch him the past two years,” catcher Mike Zunino said.
Morton had only thrown 66 pitches when Cash opted to lift him with two outs and runners on first and third in the sixth. Morton had walked Martín Maldonado and yielded a base hit to Jose Altuve, and with the Astros now on their third trip through the order, Cash called for Nick Anderson to finish off Michael Brantley.
“He said, heck of a job,” Morton joked of the mount visit, “and told me to beat it.”
It was a gamble -- Morton was cruising, and Anderson had given up a walk-off homer to Carlos Correa just two days earlier. But when Brantley grounded to second base on the second pitch, Cash was again proven to be correct.
Still, did he have any second thoughts about lifting his veteran pitcher?
“Michael Brantley is as talented of a hitter as anybody in baseball, and if you give him too many looks, he's going to get you,” Cash said. “It's no discredit to anybody. It's just, that's what we do. We believe in our process and we're going to continue doing that.”
And why not? It works. The Rays have won their last 61 games that are scheduled to be nine innings when leading after the seventh, in the regular and postseasons combined, according to Elias. They’re also 33-1 when leading after six.
This all plays into the theme of the “buy in,” a phrase Cash uses to remind players that even when they make decisions that might seem questionable, there are sound reasons to back them up.
They’ll never hear a peep of dissension from Morton
“I was completely confident in the game plan, I was completely confident with [Zunino] back there behind the dish, and in the defense behind us,” he said. “So, there's nothing else to do except just go throw the ball.”