ARLINGTON -- Throughout his career, Charlie Morton has had a knack for finding another gear and turning into Charlie Freakin’ Morton, a nickname that was affectionately given to him for strong big-game efforts during the Astros’ championship run in 2017.
There are few pitchers in Major League history who have a better postseason resume than Morton. It’s the type of resume that made the Rays comfortable giving the veteran right-hander a club record two-year, $30 million deal after the 2018 season.
But in the Rays’ 6-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday at Globe Life Field, Morton stumbled for the first time in the postseason with Tampa Bay. That’s not something the Rays are used to seeing, especially in October. With the loss, Tampa Bay now trails the best-of-seven series, 2-1.
“He’s set the bar as high as anybody in the game right now in postseason success off the mound,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “A couple pitches here or there he’d like to have back, we’d like to have back, just to keep us in it a little bit longer. But so appreciative of Charlie’s presence in the clubhouse, what he does, that mentality he just naturally provides our clubhouse when we know we get to hand him the ball.”
While Cash didn’t want to say it was surprising to see Morton struggle, you wouldn’t be able to blame him had he said that. That’s just how good Morton has been in the postseason for the Rays.
Coming into Friday’s start, Morton was 5-0 with a 0.70 ERA in five postseason starts with the Rays, three of them coming in elimination games. In those three starts in elimination games, Morton allowed just two runs. On Friday, the right-hander allowed five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, his shortest postseason start with Tampa Bay.
The five-run outing snapped Morton’s streak of five consecutive postseason starts allowing one or no earned runs, falling one shy of tying Curt Schilling for the longest such streak in Major League history.
“I just never got into a groove,” Morton said. “I never really felt comfortable out there, which even in a playoff game, I’m able to eventually get there if I don’t get there early. I just never did. Just combine that with who [the Dodgers] are with the bat, and it made for a rough night.”
The outing started with Morton giving up a solo home run to Justin Turner in the top of the first. Max Muncy added two more runs in the third on a two-out single, and Austin Barnes and Mookie Betts added the finishing touches with an RBI each in a two-run fourth, expanding the Dodgers’ lead to 5-0.
Aside from the Barnes squeeze bunt, four of the five runs Los Angeles scored against Morton came with two outs. The Dodgers now have 50 two-out runs this postseason. The Rays have 68 total runs. If Tampa Bay wants to win the World Series, it is going to have to limit that two-out damage.
“It’s one of those things -- very good lineup, very balanced lineup,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino. “They capitalized on a couple mistakes that we made. There’s a couple pitches we kinda wish we had back. But that’s what a good lineup does. They were patient, worked his pitch count up and ultimately had some big hits when they needed it.”
The two-out struggles were just as uncharacteristic for Morton, who excelled in those situations this season. In nine regular-season starts, Morton held opposing hitters to a .213 batting average with two outs. In comparison, opposing hitters finished with a .304 batting average with no outs and a .314 clip with one out. That was another sign that it just wasn’t Morton’s night.
“I feel like I was able to get to two strikes pretty quickly with a lot of guys, but wasn’t able to put them away,” Morton said. “Even some of those pitches that I was getting ahead -- actually, a lot of them -- they just weren’t very well-executed. And then there in the fourth and fifth, stuff wasn’t really there, the command wasn’t really there, and they’re just too good for that.”
The reality is Morton was bound to have one of these postseason starts, but Tampa Bay just wishes it would’ve come at a better time. Historically, the Game 3 winner in best-of-seven series tied 1-1 has gone on to win the series 65 of 94 times (69.1%). The Rays, however, feel like they’re a team that can defy the odds.
“We took the Yankees to five games, we took the Astros to seven,” Morton said. “This group can do it. They’ve proven it. There’s nothing left but to show up tomorrow and bounce back.”
In order for the Rays to win their first World Series title, they will likely have to lean on Morton to be that big-game pitcher again. There’s a chance Tampa Bay could win the next three games and wouldn’t have to lean on Morton. But the more realistic scenario appears to be with Morton getting a rematch against Walker Buehler and the Dodgers in a Game 7.
The Rays have a lot of work to do until then, but if they’re able to get it there, they’ll bank on Charlie Morton turning into CFM again.
“That’s a really good team over there,” Zunino said. “They just took it today, but I think the goal is to even this series tomorrow and look forward to hopefully give Charlie the ball one more time in this series.”