In what was a showcase between postseason contenders, the most important clash on the mound was without a doubt in the Tuesday game, when former Astros starter Charlie Morton took the mound at Minute Maid Park for the first time since leaving Houston as a free agent.
The Astros’ bats showed him the team wasn’t missing a beat in the absence of the two-time All-Star, scoring six runs in four innings against Morton in a 14-1 win. He hasn’t won any of his last three starts and has significantly increased his Earned Run Average, but there’s no debate that he’s the ace of Tampa’s rotation, even once Blake Snell becomes a regular part of the rotation.
However, as the Rays approach the decisive part of their wildcard hunt, particularly due to how unpredictable Snell can be returning from injury, Tampa Bay will need to rely on Morton and he will need to deliver. Because the Indians and the A’s, despite the Rays ranking third in MLB in team ERA, have an advantage in this department in having deeper rotations. On the other hand, their pitching staff, statistically more efficient, gives them an edge in a possible wildcard game appearance. But a playoff series makes the pitching distribution a whole lot more different.
Morton is having his best career year, despite raising his ERA from 2.77 to 3.11 in just three winless starts, and has a particularly good past track record when it comes to postseason appearances on the mound, both as a starter and in relief.
Back in 2017, Houston’s banner year, Justin Verlander had a great postseason and was the main contributor on the mound. But what Morton did down the stretch also deserves a mention. After a shaky start against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS, he pitched five scoreless innings in Game 7. In the World Series he got the win in Game 7 after four scoreless at Dodger Stadium, finishing the Series with 1.74 ERA in 10.1 IP.
The next season, his last in Houston, got even better when he played in his first All-Star Game at the age of 34 and even managed to build on his success from 2017, winning 15 games and posting a 3.13 ERA. And he’s on pace for an even better campaign. He is a reliable veteran and more irreplaceable than any other member of the 2019 Rays.
He’s durable and will be able to pitch in consecutive days after a start. That might not be needed only in a playoff series – with how tight the AL wildcard battle is, he might have to be ready at any given day in the last two weeks of September. He is also having his best season when it comes to strikeouts, tying his career-high of 201 with more than a month to go.
Morton ranks seventh in strikeouts in the American League and that will be vital for every pitcher on an AL contender because they will face offences such as the Astros and the Twins, both top 4 in runs scored, or play at Yankee Stadium where the flyball pitcher gets punished. But Charlie Morton has experience in such circumstances – now, with his current arsenal, success is due.
The Tampa Bay Rays haven’t been able to solidify their position in the playoff picture. Oakland and Cleveland may look like more complete clubs (although the Indians’ loss of Jose Ramirez can prove to be deadly), but Tampa has more reinforcements coming – in Blake Snell and, possibly, rookie second baseman Brandon Lowe. With a three-man rotation in October, and with the pitching depth they’ve established, the Rays’ staff can be even more effective once they make sure they at least extend their 2019 campaign.