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Thank Charlie Morton for the Tampa Bay Rays’ world of playoff possibilities

John Romano: For a second straight start, Morton pitched six shutout innings in the heat of a postseason chase. On Wednesday it was good enough for a 4-0 victory over the Yankees.
 
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) is congratulated as he gets out of the sixth inning after his no hitter was broken up with a hit by New York Yankees DJ LeMahieu (26) at Tropicana Field, September 25, 2019 in St. Petersburg, FL.  The Rays won, 4-0.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) is congratulated as he gets out of the sixth inning after his no hitter was broken up with a hit by New York Yankees DJ LeMahieu (26) at Tropicana Field, September 25, 2019 in St. Petersburg, FL. The Rays won, 4-0. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 26, 2019|Updated Sept. 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG – Do you feel better now?

(Giancarlo Stanton swings meekly at a curveball in the dirt.)

Do you have more confidence now?

(Brett Gardner hits a routine grounder with the go-ahead run on base.)

Is your faith in the Rays latest ace restored now?

(The Yankees go 1-for-18 with nine strikeouts in the first six innings.)

This was the game the Rays needed. It didn’t have the drama of the recent walk-off wins. It didn’t clinch anything, although it moved the Rays one game closer in that direction.

What Wednesday’s 4-0 victory against the Yankees did do was give you more hope that Tampa Bay would reach the American League wild-card game next Wednesday, and it left you feeling there was an even greater world of possibilities beyond it.

You can thank Charlie Morton for all of that.

“This is exactly why we signed him,’’ said Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom. “But everything he’s done this year is exactly why we signed him.’’

So much of the last month has been about survival. Exactly four weeks earlier, the Rays had lost their fourth consecutive game and had fallen behind both Cleveland and Oakland in the wild-card race.

Since then, the Rays have the best record in the AL at 19-6 and now they have the slightest advantage over the Indians for the second wild-card spot. (Oakland was playing later Wednesday night.)

“When we needed him most, and we’ve been saying that now for a month or six weeks every time he takes the ball, we really need him to step up, said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “He certainly did tonight.

“Just an outstanding performance.’’

But even while the Rays were climbing back into contention, there was the nagging concern that Morton was not the same pitcher he had been earlier in the season.

At 35, he was starting more games, throwing more innings and facing more hitters than he ever had before. After going 10-2 with a 2.32 ERA in the first half, Morton was 5-4 with a 4.52 ERA in his first 12 starts after the All-Star break.

He could have used a respite. He knew it. The Rays knew it. Your next-door neighbor probably knew it. But the team could not afford it.

With Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos still working their way back from injuries, and with Ryan Yarbrough suddenly struggling, Morton was Tampa Bay’s first and greatest hope every turn through the rotation.

The fear was that Morton was doing so much to carry the Rays through September that he would be running on fumes by October.

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“Look, we’re not where we are right now without him,’’ Cash said “We’re not able to do some of the creative things we do in the bullpen without him. Obviously, we need Glas, we need Blake we need Yonny, but what him and Yarbs have done has allowed us to stay flexible, versatile in the bullpen.’’

The Rays have not formally announced anything, but the rotation is set up for Morton to pitch in either a Game 163 on Monday or in the AL wild-card game on Wednesday.

The prospects for either of those games looks infinitely better now. In, presumably, his final two starts of the regular season, Morton went six shutout innings against the Red Sox (before giving up a two-run homer in the seventh) and six shutout innings against the Yankees Wednesday.

Even better, Morton’s curveball looked virtually unhittable. Of his nine strikeouts, seven of his third strikes came on swing-and-misses at the curveball. Another was caught looking at the curve.

Morton has been through this before with Houston heading into the postseason the past two years, but he’s also had disabled list stints that have given him a chance to catch his breath.

“Going into those situations you want to be pitching well,’’ Morton said. “I felt like I threw the ball well when I came back from the lat injury in ’17 and heading into the playoffs that year was a big boost.’’

So how does he feel this year without getting a break.

“(Pitching coach) Kyle Snyder has done a great job with my workload this year,’’ Morton said. “I feel good. I feel good.’’

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.