Whether it was the long layoff, the fact that he's 36 years old or a lack of rhythm on the mound, Charlie Morton didn't quite look like himself during the regular season. Morton's velocity was down, which led to the right-hander posting a 4.74 ERA in nine regular-season starts, the highest since he finished with a 4.81 ERA in 2015 with the Pirates.
But despite the struggles, the Rays stuck with the veteran Morton, knowing he would rise to the occasion in the postseason. It was his success in October that ultimately led Tampa Bay to sign him to a club record two-year, $30 million deal in 2018.
That patience has paid off for Tampa Bay, as Morton continued his postseason dominance with the club, tossing five shutout innings in the Rays' 4-2 win over the Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Petco Park on Monday. In four postseason starts with the Rays, Morton is now 4-0 with a 0.90 ERA. His four wins are the most by a Rays pitcher in postseason history.
With the win, the Rays take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which has proven to be a good place to be. In playoff history, teams that have won the first two games of any best-of-seven series have gone on to win that series 72 of 85 times (85 percent). However, no team has rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win a best-of-seven series since the 2004 Red Sox came back from the only 0-3 deficit in MLB history, in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. Dating back to the '04 World Series, teams ahead 2-0 have gone on to win the series 22 straight times.
"We can't nitpick too much, because [Morton] just threw five scoreless innings against as good of an offense as you're going to see," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "Just another outstanding effort. He made big pitches there in the fourth and fifth innings to get us through five."
Monday's start wasn't always pretty for Morton. He had to navigate through traffic on the bases in each of the first four innings and his pitch count got up to 96 pitches through five, a tick higher than what the Rays would've hoped for. But through all that, Morton was still able to exit the game with a 3-0 lead, setting Tampa Bay up nicely to get into its bullpen.
Added adrenaline in the postseason has contributed to Morton's success, but the right-hander's overall stuff has also just been flat-out better in the postseason than in the regular season. The biggest difference? The velocity on his four-seam fastball.
On Monday, Morton threw the pitch 21 times, averaging 94.9 mph. That average reflects the 94.7 mph average Morton recorded in his stellar 2019 season, more than the 93.4 mph clip he had in nine starts in the regular season. Morton entered the game with just two strikeouts on pitches 95 mph or faster this season. In Game 2, he recorded three with pitches at that velocity.
"You have to have a lot of confidence for who he is and know that he's going to figure it out, and he has," Cash said. "Ever since he has come back, and certainly in the postseason, he's sitting at that 94-96 [mph] range. Any pitcher will take the extra velo, and he's getting it right now."
The added velocity has also helped Morton's old friend: the sinker.
Earlier in his career with the Pirates, Morton relied heavily on his sinker ball. Since then, Morton has relied more on the four-seam fastball, but he can still incorporate his sinker, especially against a lineup full of right-handed bats like the Yankees and Astros.
Morton threw the sinker 33 times on Monday, the most of any pitch, and recorded two strikeouts with it. He went into the game without a single punchout with the sinker this season.
"Treatment-wise, there were some things that we were doing that gave me some freedom in my arm," Morton said. "I came back and I feel like my stuff is just getting better and getting better every outing."
While Manuel Margot and Mike Zunino continued their hot hitting and the Rays' defense was stellar once again on Monday, having Morton back in form could prove to be huge for Tampa Bay. When you pair Morton's experience with Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow's overpowering stuff, the Rays now have a trio of starters that they would line up against anybody in the Majors.
This is the starting rotation the Rays envisioned having back in February, and now Tampa Bay is just two wins away from winning its first AL pennant since 2008.
"Every time he's on the mound in the postseason, it's unbelievable," said Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who made three stellar defensive plays behind Morton. "Everybody in the clubhouse, we have a lot of confidence every time he pitches and we're just trying to do whatever is in our hands to help him."