OAKLAND, Calif. – Charlie Morton has thrown pitches in more significant situations, starting and winning Game 7 of the 2017 AL Championship Series for the Astros and then closing out Game 7 of the World Series in Dodger Stadium.
And he has thrown pitches in more meaningful moments, getting down on one knee to toss balls to his 6-year-old son and his teammates in a coach-pitch league near their Bradenton home before going off to work for the season, calling it, “One of the coolest experiences” he ever had.
But Morton may never throw more fitting, more appropriate pitches than he will Wednesday night for the Rays against Oakland in the American League wild-card game. Pitching for a team that signed him to a hefty, by their standards, two-year $30-million contract. Pitching for a team that he has relished leading on the mound and in the clubhouse. Pitching for a team that ended up exactly where all parties envisioned, in the playoffs.
“I don’t think,’’ Morton said Tuesday, “it could have worked out much better.’’
The Rays certainly don’t, manager Kevin Cash acknowledging they set their rotation up weeks ago to have Morton lined up to pitch whatever win-or-go-home situation they faced, whether it was a tiebreaker or the wild-card game.
“We wouldn’t want anybody else out there right now,’’ Cash said.
When the Rays first courted Morton as a free agent last November, they invited him up to the Trop, sat him in Cash’s office and talked about how great of a fit he would be on their talented but young team, how comfortable he could be getting to play while living at home, how well they could see it working out, with him leading them into the postseason.
And here they all are.
“It’s a moment that I’m looking forward to,’’ Morton said. “This is what we set out to do.’’
Morton’s work throughout the season to get the Rays here was invaluable, especially as their rotation was ravaged by injuries. At age 35, he made more starts (33) and logged more innings (194⅔) than he ever had, and posted one of, if not his best, season. Mixing his high velocity fastball with a knee-bending curve, he’s gone 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA that was third in the league, 240 strikeouts and a .215 opponents average. He’s likely to get his first career Cy Young award votes and finish in the top five.
Morton has done this long enough that he won’t take measure of his overall performance until sometime during the winter, though he did allow during a recent talk about his workload.
“This has probably been my best year.’’ Even more so when adding in the context.
“I’d like to say contracts don’t matter and I’d like to say situations don’t matter, that they shouldn’t really dictate how you feel about yourself,’’ Morton said. “But certainly they give you a bunch of money and you’re in this group here with a lot of young guys where you can make an impact and help move a team forward, those things certainly were on my mind after I signed this deal.
"So far, so good, I think. I don’t think it’s just me saying that.’’
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As Morton’s individual performance improved unexpectedly at this later stage of his career, he also enjoyed more team success, as this will be the third consecutive year he is pitching in the playoffs, and fourth overall. Though he came through at the biggest moments in 2017, his overall postseason work has been varied, with a 2-2, 4.60 mark in seven games.
“I’ve thrown really well in the playoffs and I’ve thrown really poorly in the playoffs,’’ he said. “That taste lingers in your mouth when you fail in those situations. It’s still there to motivate you because you know how it feels, how bad it feels to not get it done when your team needs you the most.
"That’s motivating. I look forward to games like that. I wouldn’t call it redemption, but you’re always fighting that failure. You’re always fighting coming up short, especially when you know how it feels to win, which is really nice.’’
There’s another element in play that Morton doesn’t want to consider, which is that this could be his last chance on the postseason stage. He agreed to the two-year deal (that includes a 2021 option, though with some unusual clauses) with the idea that he wouldn’t sign another one, and would retire to become a fulltime husband to wife Cindy, and dad to the four kids six and under. Morton said that doesn’t shape his thinking.
“I don’t know if I appreciate it more. I appreciate the moments that have shaped my career, whether that’s good or bad, whether those moments were successes or failures,’’ he said after his media conference. “I wouldn’t say I’m thinking, ‘I’m 35 years old, I get to pitch in the postseason, this is great.’ I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think about that. It’s, ‘Are you good enough to pitch in the big leagues or are you not? Are you professional enough, or are you not? Are you dedicated, or are you not?’
"That’s the kind of stuff I think about. Can you help a team or not? Not, wow, I’m 35.’’
He said it would be different if he was in his 40s and barely hanging on, whereas he’s throwing as hard and snapping off curveballs as well as he ever has.
“I consider myself lucky,’’ he said. Similar to how he felt when the somewhat unexpected opportunity presented to sign with the Rays.
“It’s hard to find a great overall situation,’’ he said. “It’s hard to find a clubhouse that is great, a coaching staff and front office that is transparent as it’s been here and that is (close) to where your family is, and those are the things that really mattered to me.
“I don’t know if a better scenario could have occurred. It’s really bizarre how everything worked out.’’
He’s not the only lucky one.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.