When Astros Needed to Improvise, Charlie Morton Was Ready – New York Times

“I’m way better than the way I’m pitching right now,” Giles said after Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, when he blew a lead in the 10th inning of an eventual 7-6 victory. “I’m not pitching to my expectations and I’m beating myself up about it.”

The cracks had started showing in the American League Championship Series, at Yankee Stadium, when Giles — who had 34 saves in 38 chances in the regular season — lost a two-run lead in Game 4. He never pitched after the fourth game of the World Series, when the Dodgers battered him for three runs in the ninth inning to break open a tie game.

By then, Hinch had already shown a willingness to find other pitchers for crucial spots, eschewing the crutch that managers often depend on. Stubbornly hoping for the summer version of a reliever now fading in the fall had contributed to other teams’ World Series downfalls – notably the Boston Red Sox in 1986 and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993.

Hinch refused to bury the Astros in that same graveyard. At three critical points in this postseason, he liked what he saw from a pitcher already in the game and let him finish it.

“You’ve got to go with the hot hand, and it worked,” said the Astros’ owner, Jim Crane, an old college pitcher. “And it worked more than once.”

In Game 7 of the A.L.C.S., Hinch used starter Lance McCullers to relieve Morton for the final four innings. That decision clinched the pennant for Houston.

In Game 3 of the World Series, starter Brad Peacock relieved McCullers with one out in the sixth, Hinch stuck with him the rest of the way, too.

And when McCullers could not survive the third inning of his start on Wednesday night, Hinch used three relievers to get the game to Morton for the bottom of the sixth. Two former Cy Young Award winners, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, got loose for the Astros in the bullpen. But Morton was stifling the Dodgers, and Hinch did not stop him.

“I was comfortable with him closing the game around three innings, but he did it with four,” Hinch said, adding that he knew he had reinforcements if needed. “As much as I scripted this game, it never plays out the way you expect.”

The Astros did not expect Giles to falter in October, but they protected themselves by engineering their staff to be fresh through the postseason. Not a single pitcher on the team worked 162 innings – the minimum to be considered for the E.R.A. title – as an Astro this season. Mike Fiers led the team in innings, with 153⅓, and he was left off the postseason roster.

Photo

Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. hit four batters before coming out of the game in the third inning.

Credit
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Of course, the Astros did trade for the prototypical leading man: Verlander, who worked 206 innings between playing for Detroit and Houston and fired a complete game in the A.L.C.S. But McCullers, Peacock and Morton each made at least 22 starts in the regular season while pitching between 115 and 150 innings – enough of a workload to be available for multiple innings in October, but not so much to be exhausted by the World Series.

“I have to give props to our medical team,” General Manager Jeff Luhnow said. “They kept our guys healthy and playing. At this point in the season, the difference between medical teams could win the World Series. Our doctors, our trainers, our strength guys, they kept these guys out there.”

In the end, there was Morton, sturdy and strong, defying his history as a pitcher perhaps best known for injuries. He had left hip surgery in 2010, Tommy John surgery in 2012 and right hip surgery in 2014. In 10 seasons, he has never reached 30 starts or 175 innings.

Last year was especially grim. Traded to Philadelphia after seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Morton tore his left hamstring running to first base in April. He spent the next several months making lonely morning drives from his home in Bradenton, Fla., to the Phillies’ complex in Clearwater, recovering from an injury he knew had ended his season.

“It’s not a good feeling, because you’re watching your team on TV and you’re a thousand miles away and you can’t do anything,” Morton said. “But you start to appreciate it, because it becomes your responsibility as a professional. It’s not glorious; nobody knows what’s really going on except the guys you’re working with. But it’s my job. It’s my job to approach each situation professionally, and I tried to do that.”

The Astros saw enough in Morton’s statistical profile to sign him to a two-year, $14 million contract last November. They believed in his curveball, which Morton threw more than ever this season, and thought that mechanical changes could help his fastball.

They were right. Morton went 14-7 with a 3.62 E.R.A. in the regular season, with a career-best 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Then he became the first pitcher in baseball history to win two Game 7’s in the same postseason.

“I’m still not a 200-inning guy,” Morton said. “But I’m part of something special.”

He thought some more and turned philosophical while teammates smoked cigars and flung beer around the locker room.

“You just don’t know,” Morton said. “You could bunt a ball, be running down to first base and your season could be over. Or you could be here, and be fortunate to be part of this. That’s how I look at it, because I’ve been everything: I’ve been the guy you couldn’t count on, I’ve been the guy that gets hurt all the time, and I’ve been a guy you can rely on in a crucial situation.”

There is no more crucial situation than the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, trying to bring your team its first championship ever. Morton delivered. He stopped dreaming, but the dream never gave up on him.

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