This was the winter of 2018, and Morton was a 35-year-old free agent coming off his best professional season. The Rays courted the veteran righty with talk of their cutting-edge reputation, devotion to analytics and emerging young core.
At one point, the issue of Morton’s potential workload came up.
"The briefing was, 'We don’t need you to go seven or eight innings,'" Morton said. "'The way we’re built, if you give us five or six good innings, we’ll take care of the rest.'"
Morton remembers it well, because when his most important start for the organization to date arrived Wednesday, that’s about exactly how it played out. Pitching for the first time in 12 days, Morton struck out six while holding the Yankees to two runs (one earned) over five solid innings, doing his part to push the Rays within one game of their first AL Championship Series since 2008. The rest was, well, taken care of, by Kevin Kiermaier, Randy Arozarena and Michael Perez on one side, and four crisp innings from Tampa Bay’s bullpen on the other.
“He was outstanding,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “With the rest, we were cautiously optimistic it would do him good. He looked really fresh and got the ball in the zone really quickly, which was encouraging.”
In short, it was the kind of October performance the Rays have become accustomed to from Morton since bringing him in via free agency before the 2019 season; Morton is 3-0 with a 1.20 ERA (15 innings, two earned runs) in three postseason starts during that stretch.
It was also reminiscent of one of Morton’s best postseason efforts from his days with the Astros, when he pitched five shutout innings against the Yankees to clinch the 2017 ALCS. Starting with that win, Morton is 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA in his last 10 starts against the Yankees.
“I felt good real early," Morton said. "I felt like I was able to make some good pitches and felt good physically.”
That was of minor concern for the Rays given the three-week stint Morton spent on the injured list in August with right shoulder inflammation, an issue they hoped extra rest would ensure would not become an issue again. The only time Morton really ran into trouble Wednesday was during the pivotal third inning, when he loaded the bases and allowed the Yankees to tie the game at 1 on Aaron Judge’s sac fly. Morton walked the next batter, Aaron Hicks, to load the bases again, but he limited the damage by inducing an inning-ending Luke Voit grounder on a 3-2 pitch.
A half-inning later, Kiermaier’s three-run homer off Tanaka changed the entire complexion of the game.
“That was a big opportunity,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Morton, the first two innings, was kind of cruising, really dictating some counts. We were able to create some traffic … but he made some pitches when he had to.”
Said Morton: “It was crucial. If I can limit them and we can put a few runs on the board, it’s a giant momentum shift.”
By holding the Yankees to little more than Hicks’ RBI triple over the next two frames, Morton might have potentially helped swing the series as well. In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams with a 2-1 lead have gone on to win the series 62 of 87 times (71 percent). (However, last season, two of the three teams that fell behind 2-1 in the Division Series -- the Nationals (vs. Dodgers) and Cardinals (vs. Braves) -- came back to win.)
The reigning two-time All-Star did so Wednesday by adjusting his pitch mix to keep Yankee hitters off balance, notably throwing his cutter 13 percent more than usual while slicing his four-seam fastball rate by 16 percent. That allowed his signature curve to play up and for Morton to get better-than-usual whiff rates with all four of his pitches, while walking just two. He would be on extra rest once again should the Rays advance, and now they require just one more win to do so.
“Because my curveball has been such a go-to pitch for me the past few years, guys feel comfortable just sitting curveball,” Morton said. “This year, it just hasn’t been as effective as it’s been. The Yankees have to be one of the better all-around pro hitting groups of guys. They’re seasoned, really talented, dynamic and pretty squared away. When you face a group like that, you have to do something different. You have to execute better and you have to offer something different.”