Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. knew what he was up against. He had seen Charlie Morton in command in win or go home games before. He had partnered with him in unforgettable moments, especially their Game 7 World Series triumph that ended with the Astros rushing to Morton in celebration. He knew.
A glance was likely enough of a reminder, with Morton in command of everything he threw, pounding the zone with hard (harder than usual, perhaps) fastballs and his too familiar masterful curve.
The Astros knew.
“Charlie was really good,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said after Morton’s dominant start on Saturday helped key the Ray’s 4-2 to eliminate the Astros. “He’s just one of the best in the game.”
McCullers could not allow mistake pitches, not with his friend and former teammate dealing like that. But he could not match him.
Three pitches went terribly wrong. A wayward first inning piled up the pitch count. McCullers would be through before he could finish the fourth inning. But before he settled down, mixing in his changeup and retiring the Rays as he did when he got rolling in Game 2, he had three pitches get away that changed everything.
“I felt like I threw the ball really well,” McCullers said. “Just one or two pitches back to get the opportunity to really get a full start in and really give the guys some length. I had a lot left to give.”
The first came on his first pitch of the game, hitting Manuel Margot. Two batters later, he tried to sneak heat past the hottest hitter of the postseason. Randy Arozarena crushed it, sending a 97 miles per hour fastball that caught too much of the plate 417 feet for a 2-0 Rays lead.
An inning later, McCullers was burned on a very different pitch to a very different hitter. When McCullers hung a breaking ball in the top of the zone as if putting it on a tee, Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino blasted a 430-foot home run. All seven runs McCullers allowed in the series had come on home runs.
By then, McCullers was certain to have a short night. He needed 50 pitches to get through the first two innings. When he reached 75 pitches, having allowed four hits and three runs in 32/3 innings, Astros manager Dusty Baker called on Brooks Raley to get Kevin Kiermaier, even though McCullers had handled him easily.
That was far from the most surprising hook.
Morton had rolled. Through 52/3 innings, he had given up a first inning single to Michael Brantley and a slow roller that Jose Altuve hit with two outs in the sixth. He had thrown just 66 pitches. Since 1912, Morton’s 0.50 ERA was the third-best in winner-take-all games, behind only Madison Bumgarner and Justin Verlander.
“I felt pretty comfortable early on, which is a struggle in those kinds of games because it is such a high energy atmosphere,” Morton said. “There’s a lot of pressure. I guess when you get the ball in those situations … you just want to go out there and be a pro.”
He is 4-0 in winner-take-all games. He has allowed one earned run and 11 hits in 192/3 innings in those games. According to ESPN Stats, Morton had become the fifth pitcher since 1913 to have started five consecutive postseasons and allow one earned run or fewer. Only Curt Schilling’s streak of six games is longer.
Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled him anyway. The early 3-0 lead was nowhere near as insurmountable as seemed the 3-0 lead in the series the Rays held and the Astros erased. But Cash turned to Nick Anderson, and he got Michael Brantley to ground out to second.
Morton, however, was masterful, moving to 4-0 with a 0.46 ERA in winner take all games. He is unbeaten in his past nine postseason appearances, going 7-0 with a 1.45 ERA and is the second pitcher to win five consecutive decisions with all starts and allow one or fewer earned run in each.
“I try to simplify it to a game plan,” Morton said. “We had some stuff, some ideas each of us had. We basically within three or four minutes agreed on the general concept of what we were going to do. I was completely confident in the game plan. I was completely confident in Z (Mike Zunino) behind the dish and the defense behind us. There was nothing else to do but just go throw the ball.”
Yet, for all his past success in those situations, he might have never thrown it better.
“This is the best I’ve seen Charlie in the time I’ve been able to catch him in the past two years,” Zunino said. “He had everything working. He had a great mix. It’s so much fun to work with Charlie, the knowledge he brings. Seeing him do that on the biggest stage is a lot of fun.”
As the Astros knew. It is what he has done for them and now against them, making him a big game specialist heading to another series with another chance at the biggest of big games.
“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable,” Morton said. “I guess after the first couple when I actually realized I could do it, big games became something I kind of look forward to a little bit.I’ve dealt with a lack of believe in myself. For organizations to give me the ball in big situations, that was the biggest thing for me, the belief that an organization would have to give the ball to me. I don’t know. I just get in a little bit of a groove there, especially today.
“It means the world to me I feel like the guys in that clubhouse believe in me. That was a really special one to me.”
reported from Houston