HOUSTON — Braves fans will long remember Charlie Morton’s performance in Game 1 of the 2021 World Series. The veteran right-hander worked out of a potentially disastrous first inning, then retired three batters — striking out two — after he was hit on the leg by a line drive off AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel’s bat.
His final pitch was a signature Morton curveball that froze Jose Altuve for a called strike three. He grimaced in pain as landed on the follow-through, then started to walk toward the bench even as the trainer and manager Brian Snitker came out of the dugout. A few innings later, the Braves tweeted that X-rays had revealed a fracture in his right fibula.
“To strike out a guy with a broken leg,” Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud said after the game, “that blows my mind.”
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The Braves’ bullpen took it home on the road, and Atlanta won the game 6-2 to snag a 1-0 lead in the World Series. It was truly an incredible performance.
My lasting memory of Charlie Morton, though, took place inside the visiting clubhouse at Dodger Stadium after Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, not too long after his Herculean effort — four innings of stellar relief in the clincher, on short rest after 6 1/3 brilliant innings in his Game 4 start — helped his Astros claim the first World Series title in franchise history.
Morton was tucked into a locker, out of the way and nearly out of sight. There was joy in his eyes and a look of relief on his face. In this apex moment of athletic accomplishment, which absolutely would not have been possible for his team without his efforts, Morton was introspective. His personal career journey to that moment had been marked with more disappointments than successes, more frustrations than satisfaction.
But he’d persevered. He’d come out the other side. Finally.
“I let a lot of people down in Pittsburgh,” he said, bringing up his time with the Pirates without being asked. “I pitched in Pittsburgh against the Cardinals, it was a crucial game, and I got booed off the field. I got traded that December. I was at Pirate Fest, and I got a phone call from the GM, Neal Huntington. He’s a class act. He met me at the hotel and asked me to come down to the lobby, and I knew what was going on at that point.”
Morton recalled the trade to Philadelphia and the mental reset that provided, but also the hamstring issues that zapped his ability to stay on the field. In the first season of the two-year, $14 million deal he signed with the Astros in November 2016, a few days after his 33rd birthday, he finally stayed healthy enough to make 25 starts. He pitched the best baseball of his entire career late in October.
In his final three appearances in the playoffs — he started Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 4 of the World Series and capped it with four innings of relief to close out Game 7 — Morton fashioned a 1.17 ERA, with seven hits allowed in 15 1/3 innings, contrasted with 16 strikeouts. In Game 7 against the Dodgers, he retired the final 13 batters of the game.
“I’ve been everything,” he said, tucked into that locker. “I’ve been the guy you couldn’t count on. I’ve been the guy who got hurt all the time. And I’ve been the guy you can rely on in a big situation. That doesn’t define who I am, because I’m not that guy and I’m not that guy. I’m just a human being playing baseball.”
Charlie Morton is the guy who took a line drive off his leg in the second inning — “He told me, ‘That one got me good,” d’Arnaud said. — and came back out for another frame. He’s the veteran hurler who struck out Astros star Altuve on a nasty breaking ball despite the pain.
“That’s Charlie,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He wants to be on this stage.
“I really hate this for him.”
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The question for Snitker and the Braves is, where do they go from here? They’re up 1-0 in the series — A.J. Minter provided 2 2/3 huge innings after Morton left with the injury — but Morton’s absence leaves a massive hole in Atlanta’s pitching puzzle.
Max Fried and Ian Anderson are the only other two traditional starters on Atlanta’s postseason roster. In the NLCS, the Braves used Morton, Fried and Anderson, then went with a bullpen effort in Game 4 against the Dodgers.
Innings are especially important against the Astros, a team with a deep lineup full of hitters able to grind out at-bats and bump up pitch counts.
Lefty Drew Smyly figures to see a larger role; he struggled during the regular season and has made just one appearance this postseason. He was excellent in that one outing, though, throwing 3 1/3 innings as part of Atlanta’s bullpen effort in Game 4 of the NLCS.
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Huascar Ynoa would have made sense, but he was taken off the NLCS roster with an injury, which means he’s ineligible for the World Series roster. Kyle Wright’s on the World Series roster and he has starting experience, though his only two big-league appearances this season weren’t exactly stellar, producing a 9.95 ERA. He had a 3.05 ERA in 24 Triple-A starts.
The Braves will be allowed an injury roster addition to replace Morton, but who gets that call? Maybe Touki Toussaint? He has big league experience and can, at least in theory, offer multiple innings. The right-hander had a 4.50 ERA in 50 big-league innings and a 3.62 ERA in 27 1/3 minor-league innings. If not Toussaint, Sean Newcomb? Josh Tomlin?
Jacob Webb was on the NLCS roster but isn’t a multiple-inning option. Same goes for Richard Rodriguez and Edgar Santana.
There isn’t a Charlie Morton clone stashed on the 40-man roster. But it’s not like Morton’s the first Brave to get knocked out with an injury — hello, Ronald Acuña Jr. — but his injury certainly is the most ill-timed. We will soon find out whether Atlanta can overcome this one, too.