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Morton steps up again to keep season alive

Rays starter overcomes rocky first, K's 9 in 5 innings to earn win
@Sportsgal25
October 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG -- Early on during the most important game of the season, Rays starter Charlie Morton just didn’t have his best stuff. The good thing about being Charlie Morton, though, is that even an off day is plenty enough to get the job done.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Early on during the most important game of the season, Rays starter Charlie Morton just didn’t have his best stuff. The good thing about being Charlie Morton, though, is that even an off day is plenty enough to get the job done.

Such was the case during Monday afternoon’s 10-3 win over the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field. Down 0-2 in the series against the AL West champions, the Rays entered play with their backs against the wall, much as they were throughout September as they fought to secure a playoff berth.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 4 HOU 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 5 HOU 3, TB 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 TB 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 10 HOU 6, TB 1 Watch

The Rays counted on Morton to do his thing during a 5-1 victory in the AL Wild Card Game on Wednesday against the A’s. It was a battle, but Morton still managed to bulldog his way through five innings to become the first pitcher in MLB history to win three winner-take-all postseason tilts.

Monday’s labor began in similar fashion, with the 35-year-old needing 31 pitches to put away the Astros in the first inning (he needed 32 to handle Oakland). Jose Altuve slugged a homer that inning, the first time Morton had allowed a first-inning home run all season -- and by the time the right-hander had closed out the second inning, he was 52 pitches deep.

“When you pitch in the postseason,” Morton explained, “you're kind of fighting. You're fighting emotions, you're fighting, like, you're pretty energetic physically, a lot of times. It's obviously October, it's the end of the regular season. You're kind of in a spot where you really haven't been all year.

“The key is to find a balance. I think I got to that spot a little bit later there.”

True to his word, two things happened shortly afterward: The Rays got a little homer happy, scoring eight runs over the next three frames; and Morton’s curveball came around. Like, way around. Morton allowed two hits in that stretch, and he walked off the field with a Tampa Bay postseason-record nine strikeouts under his belt, six of them on the curve.

Eight of the 16 curves Morton threw to Houston drew whiffs, some so drastic they were almost comical.

“Certainly, we weren't expecting that after the first two innings,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Similar to the Oakland start, [Morton] really turned it up when he had to and got efficient for us. Because the pace of the way we were getting through the first two innings, you're wondering, 'Are we going to be able to get past three with him?'

“Just what Charlie's done all year long. He's got that knack for doing some special things for us, and he did again.”

Houston controlled the tempo during the first two games of the series, but on Monday, the Rays brought something with them to The Trop that the Astros no longer possessed.

Morton.

Yes, the same Morton who just two seasons ago helped Houston bring home its first World Series title in franchise history. The Rays swooped in on the free-agent market in 2018 to steal the right-hander for two years and $30 million, a big gamble made to bring in a veteran they could look to in clutch situations.

Altuve got the best of his former teammate in the third inning, too, tapping a double to left field. But he struck out looking on a Morton special in the fifth that left Houston’s second baseman shaking his head.

“I think we didn’t have a lot of opportunities because of the way he was pitching,” Altuve said. “He was unbelievable today. Good sinker, good four-seamer, the curveball was the best curveball I’ve probably seen this year, and that’s the kind of guy he is.”

It’s a role Morton has filled all season, and it's a big reason the Rays opened their piggy bank to woo him. His playoff success is a bonus: With Monday’s win, Morton moved to 4-0 with a 0.95 ERA in potential elimination games.

That kind of success makes it easy to want to use him often, but Cash said there was no discussion about running Morton out for the sixth inning Monday. He’d hit the 100-pitch mark in just 13 of his 33 starts this season, so 93 pitches was just about right.

Plus, should the Rays win Tuesday’s Game 4, Morton’s bullpen day would line up perfectly with a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday. While it’s unlikely he would start that game, it’s possible he could piggyback off the opener to give Tampa Bay a middle-innings boost.

Morton has pitched in relief just once in his postseason career, but that one turned out OK: He worked the final four innings to earn the win in Game 7 of the Astros’ World Series win against the Dodgers in 2017. That outing was on four days’ rest; this one would be three. But Morton already has proven over and again that even on short rest, there are no real off days in his world.

For that, the Rays are thankful.

“We don't want anyone else on the mound in that situation, this type of game, what's at stake and whatnot,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “Charlie's been our horse all year, and he's pitched in the big moments throughout his whole career, and once again today, elimination game. Just ... it's hard to beat him. And he went out there and pitched great again, once again.”

Dawn Klemish is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Tampa. Follow her on Twitter @Sportsgal25.