With Charlie Morton on the mound, hitters just don’t know what’s coming
HOUSTON — Only five names are listed under the “Notable alumni” section on the Wikipedia page for Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn. Top billing is reserved for Charlie Morton, the only MLB player to attend the school and the Houston Astros’ starter Wednesday for Game 4 of the ALCS.
Morton will be a free agent at season’s end, and indications are he’ll have plenty of interest from a few clubs in the AL East. It’s not difficult to understand why. Perhaps no current pitcher in the big leagues has undergone a more spectacular transformation than the kid from small-town Connecticut.
For years, Morton was a middling Pirates everyman with a low- to mid-90s fastball. The Astros have a way of sprinkling pixie dust on pitchers, magically improving their offerings and the way they approach getting opponents out.
Since signing with Houston ahead of the 2017 season, Morton’s heater has clocked in at an average of over 96 miles per hour. This year, he recorded the lowest ERA of his 11-year MLB career at 3.13. For the first time ever, he exceeded 200 strikeouts.
Morton’s 2018 pitch distribution is an interesting tale: Hitters have been consistently perplexed by the 34-year-old because they can’t predict what’s coming. Morton is featuring his fastball, sinker, and curveball at almost identical rates (all a tad above 29 percent). It’s his lowest sinker rate since 2010 and his highest curveball rate.
Some aspects of Morton’s impressive campaign benefited from a dab of good fortune. He stranded nearly 80 percent of runners in 2018, the highest mark of his career and a markedly unsustainable number. He actually allowed more hard contact this season than last.
But Morton doesn’t rattle, and it’s why a wild goose chase will ensue when he hits the market come winter. Morton, for instance, hasn’t pitched much down the stretch, and yet the idea of rust is hardly a consideration.
“I tried to keep playing catch,” he said, “and I threw a lot of BP, threw a bullpen all in the past week and a half. We discussed just trying to get some rest, take advantage of this time; get some rest and try to stay sharp at the same time.”
“I’m assuming that they’ll let me go as far as I’m effective. As far as the pitch count, I don’t know why there would be a pitch count.”
Manager A.J. Hinch penned some serious changes to the Astros lineup card ahead of Game 3, but they failed to spur the intended result in an 8-2 loss. Catcher Brian McCann made his first appearance of the series, serving as the backstop for pitcher Dallas Keuchel. McCann, the last Astro to see the field in the ALCS, went 0 for 3 with a strikeout. Keuchel worked five innings in total, allowing four hits and two runs.
Outfielder Tony Kemp also received his first start of the series, manning left field and batting ninth. Though he didn’t make much of an impact at the plate, Kemp was spectacular with the leather. He snared a high-arcing fly ball of the bat of Steve Pearce to end the top of the third, leaping up against the left field wall and corralling the ball. The play was reviewed, and although a slow-motion replay appeared to show the ball bouncing off the wall and into Kemp’s mitt, the call was upheld.
Jose Altuve was named Tuesday’s DH and faired well in the role, going 2 for 3 with a walk. Marwin Gonzalez shifted to second base and went 1 for 4 with a single.
Odds and ends
The memorandum from Boston’s coaching staff when Alex Bregman steps to the plate has been clear: Be careful. The Astros’ third baseman drew a trio of free passes in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS. He’s just the second player in postseason history (along with Jimmy Sheckard of the Cubs in the 1910 World Series) to record consecutive three walk games. He inflicted even more damage upon the Red Sox Tuesday, going 2 for 3 with an RBI double and drawing yet another free pass . . . For the first time in their last 15 playoff games, the Astros failed to hit a home run Tuesday . . . With his third inning single Tuesday, George Springer extended his postseason hitting streak to 12 games, the longest playoff hitting streak in Astros history . . . The roof at Minute Maid Park will be closed for Games 3, 4 and 5 . . . Houston rapper Slim Thug called “Play Ball!” to kick off Game 3. Houston Texans’ wide receiver Deandre Hopkins will do the honors prior to Game 4 . . . Lance Berkman tossed the ceremonial first pitch Tuesday, with former Astros Chris Burke and Jeff Kent to follow on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.