Charlie Morton is unsung post-season hero among Astros’ stars
George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander are the acknowledged stars of the Houston Astros’ World Series championship team, but there was one other relatively unknown ‘Stros player who stood just as tall when critical post-season games were on the line.
Astros pitcher Charlie Morton came up big this post-season with outstanding performances in Game 7 of both the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees and the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the first pitcher in history to win two Game 7s in the same post-season. Not too many outside the Astros organization saw that coming.
When Morton was signed as a free agent by the Houston Astros in November 2016, it raised a lot of eyebrows, since he had pitched in only four games during the 2016 season for the Philadelphia Phillies before tearing his left hamstring. Before that, he had been beset by major injuries, including two hip surgeries and Tommy John surgery, and never posted a winning record in eight major-league seasons. To further the mystery around Morton’s acquisition, Houston even offered a two-year contract for $14 million (higher than the market price), without any apparent competition from other teams. Obviously the Astros front office saw something in the veteran right hander that no one else saw.
Morton’s career took a turn for the better in 2017 when he refined his pitching approach with the Astros. He always had a decent curveball, but then the Astros helped him improve his mechanics with his fastball that allowed him to reach the mid-90s. At 33 years old, he had never been more effective than he was during the 2017 regular season.
On an Astros pitching staff that primarily featured former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, another former Cy Young winner who was acquired at the trade deadline, Morton became a staple in the starting rotation. In 25 regular season starts, he posted a 14-7 record and 3.62 ERA, leading the team with 163 strikeouts while averaging 10 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched.
After two wins by the Astros against the Yankees in the ALCS, Morton took the loss in Game 3. Then with the series tied at three apiece, Morton got the starting nod in Game 7 at home in Minute Maid Park. He turned in a masterful performance by holding the powerful Yankee lineup scoreless in his five innings pitched. The Astros went on to win 4-0 for their second-ever National League pennant.
With the Astros leading 2-1 in the World Series, Morton got the start in Game 4. He was effective again, pitching six scoreless innings before yielding a run in the top of the 7th inning. But the Dodgers eventually won the game 6-2 on five runs scored in the top of the 9th.
Verlander was unable to shut down the Dodgers in Game 6 to propel the Astros to their first World Series championship.
Then in Game 7, even though the Astros jumped out to an early 5-0 lead, they were forced to go to their bullpen in the third inning, as starter Lance McCullers Jr. experienced control problems. With Verlander and Keuchel available for work out of the pen, Astros manager A. J. Hinch instead called on Morton to keep the Dodgers in check. Morton entered the game in the sixth inning and prevented the Dodgers offense from mounting any type of comeback. He held the Dodgers to only one run on two hits in his four innings and was credited with the win for the Astros, as they finally claimed their long-awaited World Series title.
George Springer was deservedly named the MVP of the Series, based on his record-setting hitting performance of five home runs and 22 total bases. Given that the Astros had big-time pitchers in Keuchel and Verlander, few people would have expected Morton to play such a crucial role for the pitching staff in the post-season. Instead, he put his own personal history behind him and earned his place forever in history on baseball’s biggest stage.
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Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.