Morton merely mortal for Rays, question becomes what's next

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Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton reacts after giving up two runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the third inning in Game 3 of the baseball World Series Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

ARLINGTON, Texas – Charlie Morton made the slow stroll to the dugout after one of the worst starts of his stellar, and somewhat improbable, four-year postseason run.

Could that walk be his last?

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The lanky right-hander allowed seven hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings of a 6-2 loss to Los Angeles in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, ending Morton's bid to tie Orlando Hernandez's record eight straight winning postseason decisions. The Dodgers lead the series 2-1.

It was the first time the Dodgers had seen Morton in the postseason since he threw four scoreless innings to finish Houston's 5-1 win in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series in LA.

“I never really felt comfortable out there,” Morton said. “Even in playoff games, I’m able to eventually get there if I don’t get there early. And I just never did. Combine that with who they are with the bat, and it made for a rough night.”

Morton was coming off a victory over the Astros in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series that extended his major league record to four career victories in winner-take-all games. It was the second of two scoreless outings against Houston in the ALCS.

This one wasn't winner-take-all, and Morton was rather ordinary in an otherwise extraordinary postseason career for an understated, and largely unknown, pitcher who overcame Tommy John elbow surgery and two hip operations to turn a 46-71 record through his first nine big league seasons into a 47-18 mark since.

“He’s set the bar as high as anybody in the game right now in postseason success on the mound,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You hate to say ‘shocking’ because that’s unfair to Charlie. A couple of pitches here or there he’d like to have back, we’d like to have back just to keep us in the game a little longer.”

If he pitches again in this Series, it would likely be a Game 7 with another chance to extend his record in the clutch, although a relief appearance earlier isn't out of the question.

After that, Morton's future is murky. The Rays hold a $15 million option on his contract for next season. If they decline it, Morton has talked about retiring. Morton, who turns 37 next month, lives in Bradenton, Florida, about 40 miles from Tropicana Field.

“So appreciative of Charlie, the presence in the clubhouse, what he does, the mentality he just naturally provides our clubhouse when we hand him the ball,” Cash said. “Game 3 is not going to change any way we feel about him.”

Just like Morton's World Series clincher with Houston three years ago, two of the first four LA hitters reached. The first difference was one of those hits was a homer, Justin Turner's solo shot. The second difference was the Dodgers kept on hitting.

After Morton hit Corey Seager with a pitch with two outs and the bases empty in the third, Turner doubled and Max Muncy brought both of them home a single.

Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Mookie Betts singled in the fourth, with Bellinger scoring on a squeeze bunt from Austin Barnes and Betts plating Pederson.

Morton started the fifth with a strikeout of Turner, but was gone after walking Muncy. The five runs allowed were one more than he had given up in five previous starts over the past two postseasons for the Rays.

His career postseason ERA rose to 3.38 from 2.84 after allowing more than three runs for just the second time in 13 career postseason outings. The only outing that wasn't a start was the Series-winning appearance for the Astros.

“I gave up hits on my curveball, I gave up hits on my sinker, I gave up hits on my four-seamer,” Morton said. “That hit to Muncy, that was just poorly thrown. All in all, they did a really good job, which was expected.”

After being limited to four starts in 2016 by a torn hamstring, Morton signed a $14 million, two-year deal with Houston, where he transitioned from sinker-baller to power pitcher and emerged as one of the game's best. He made two All-Star teams with the Astros before signing a $30 million, two-year deal with the Rays.

Morton was 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA last year and finished third behind former Houston teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

Mostly unknown or not, at least some Dodgers fans at the neutral-site World Series in Texas sure remembered him. One in the upper deck at the home of the Texas Rangers chanted “cheat-er” the entire time Morton pitched.

It didn't matter to them that Morton wasn't among the hitters caught up in the sign-stealing scandal that tarnished the championship the Astros won at Dodger Stadium. It only mattered that he was on the mound for that final out.

Morton was long gone before the final out of possibly his final game.


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