How Charlie Morton Became the Unlikely Game 7 Hero for H-Town

Houston Astros pitcher Charlie Morton celebrates after the last out to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7 to win the World Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Charlie Morton was fantastic all postseason long. After a bounceback 2017 season joining the Houston Astros on a two-year deal, Morton proved General Manager Jeff Luhnow knew what he was doing in inking the right-hander to a two-year deal. Morton was a key cog in a stacked rotation and went 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA with 163 K’s in 25 starts with Houston.

Morton came up aces all postseason long for the Astros on their road to their first World Series Championship. Morton started the clinching Game 4 of the ALDS in Boston where he held the Red Sox hitters at bay long enough for Justin Verlander to come in and shut the door sending Houston to the ALCS. Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees shutting them down for five scoreless frames and taking all the life out of the high-powered Bronx sluggers. Again in Game 4 of the World Series against Los Angeles, Morton was terrific. He went 6.1 only allowing three hits and one earned run while striking out seven Dodgers without a walk. Ken Giles and the Astros bullpen would lose the game at home, but Manager A.J. Hinch knew Morton was a weapon that could be deployed at any time in Game 7.

Back to Morton, injuries hampered his 2016 campaign in which he only made four starts for the Philadelphia Phillies. After a number over surgeries throughout his career, Morton was questioning his market and whether or not there was still a place for him in the game. Jon Morosi of FOX Sports provided a memorable quote during last night’s game, “I (Morton) talked to my agent and said, do you think anyone will be interested?” The Astros definitely were as they signed Morton to a two-year, $14 million deal and boy did they get vindicated all year-long especially last night when Morton took over in the sixth inning and didn’t look back from there.

Morton had brief success in his career with Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buccos knew they had something special in the former Atlanta Braves third round pick in the 2002 draft out of Barlow High School in Reading, Connecticut. The Pirates realized Morton had something special in his arnsenal, and they wanted Morton to showcase it for the world and their baseball club. Prior to the 2011 season, pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant Jim Benedict called a meeting with Morton to inform the bright-starter that they were going to redefine and lower his arm slot and give him back his two-seam fastball that he had scrapped early in his professional career in the minors with Atlanta.

Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik articulated what Morton went through in this critical meeting, “Their presentation to Morton included a video of All-Star pitcher Roy Halladay, whose arm slot they wanted Morton to emulate. Like Morton, Halladay was demoted to the minor leagues early in his career after severe struggles. He had to discover a new arm path to become the perennial Cy Young contender he became in the late 2000s. They told Morton when Halladay dropped his arm slot, he was able to throw around his body, better keeping his head still.”

Morton also detailed the early success the first time with the new arm slot and working through his new mechanics. “It killed me to feel it because it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I wish I had known earlier.’ That’s pretty much all they did, keep your arm working around your body, keep your head still. It was incredible really. It was instantaneous. I knew something had changed.” The bright Charlie Morton knew the Pirates had discovered a hidden ability in him, and the Astros can thank the Pirates for getting this pitcher to the point he is now in a process that started over six years earlier.

Morton would find success with his new arm-slot in 2011 going 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA logging over 170 innings for Pittsbrugh over 29 starts. Morton struggled in 2012 before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and undergoing Tommy John surgery. That had to be it for the starter, right? After a redefined arm slot proved fruitful in ’11, going under the knife at such a crucial point in his career could do-him-in. Not so fast Morton said, as he worked his way back from TJ in near-record time and had an increase in velocity post surgery hitting mid-90’s on his two-seam fastball and making 20 starts for Pittsbrugh in 2013 on their road to their first postseason birth in twenty years. Morton went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA over 20 starts while collecting 85 strikeouts over 116 innings. Morton showcased what he had potential to do, and clearly the Astros front office took notice and that is why they signed the veteran starter despite him only logging 17 1/3 innings with Philly the year prior.

Through work with the front office and pitching coach Brent Strom, Morton was able to find that arm slot he had so much success with in Pittsburgh. He also found velocity he hadn’t previously possessed. When you’re a starting pitcher that can consistently hit 96, 97 and 98 on the gun with a filthy two-seamer that moves across the zone like Morton’s does and can mix in a tantalizing breaking ball and nasty changeup like Morton has in his arsenal, it’s no wonder why catcher Brian McCann said it’s the best stuff he has caught throughout his entire career.

To Game 7. Lance McCullers Jr. got the nod for Houston in a pivotal game, but the Astros skipper knew he had all hands on deck including Morton, Keuchel and potentially Verlander for an inning to close it out if needed. Springer led the game off with a double against Yu Darvish signaling the sign of things to come against the former Texas Rangers starter. The pitcher McCullers drove across a run in the first that made it 3-0 and as quickly as it all began, the game was in the Astros hand with room to breathe. Marwin Gonzalez doubled in the bottom of the second inning, and World Series MVP George Springer stepped to the plate and launched his fifth home run of the series, fourth consecutive game, chasing Darvish from the game and making it a 5-0 lead early in a winner-take-all Game 7 of the World Series.

McCullers struggled with his command drilling four hitters in his brief work, almost inviting a Dodger rally. Hinch worked with a quick hook as he deployed Brad Peacock, Francisco Liriano and Chris Devesnki at critical junctures to keep the game 5-0 after the first 5 innings. Then, it was time for Charlie Morton to get to work and showcase the big-game pedigree no one knew he possessed.

Morton took over to start the bottom of the 6th inning with a 5-0 lead. Three of the first four Dodgers he faced reached and on a well-placed ground ball through the hole by Andre Ethier, LA had their first run. With two runners on, and the Dodgers threatening to make it a game, Morton dialed it in and snuffed out the rally. Morton retired Chris Taylor with a changeup that should come with a “viewer discretion advised” warning and nearly ate a broken-bat from Corey Seager, but retired the young short stop for Los Angeles on a one-pitch groundout.

Hinch rode the hot-hand all the way to the conclusion as Morton retired the final nine batters he faced following the sixth inning in route to the Astros winning their first World Series Championship. Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel even got up in the 7th inning, but quickly took a seat with how locked-in with his command and the electric stuff Morton had on display for the world to see.

At the end of the day, this Astros team had the perfect balance of young rising stars in the game, veterans leading the charge in the room, timely acquisitions of former Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander) and a city pulling them on with the motivation and will-to-win unparalleled like any we’ve seen before in professional sports.

Charlie Morton was the unlikely Game 7 hero for Houston as he slammed the door and picked up the victory in four spectacular innings of relief. What a tremendous year of baseball we had in 2017 from the United States victory in the World Baseball Classic to the Houston Astros winning a championship in Dodger Stadium, it was special.

Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank


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