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Once again, Charlie Morton shows why the Rays got him

Martin Fennelly: And just when it looked like his ex-teammates had Morton on the ropes.
Tampa Bay Rays fans cheers as Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) winds up in the first inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay Rays fans cheers as Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) winds up in the first inning against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 7, 2019|Updated Oct. 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Print more T-shirts. Write the song. You all know the chorus. All together now:

It’s why they got him.

Charlie Morton still has enough in his tank.

Have fumes ever smelled this good?

The Rays, near the end of the road, facing elimination, turned to their ace, their resident master of brinksmanship, the bulldog this team bought and brought here for just such a moment.

After it was over, Morton took a knee in a Tropicana Field hallway and hugged all four of his children as his wife looked on. Family man.

His team was still alive. He’d help saved his brothers again. Family man.

The Rays climbed back into this American League Division Series with a 10-3 win, and Morton delivered with a turn every bit as heartfelt as he was in the AL wild-card game in Oakland, overcoming a slow start with five gutty innings against his former Astros teammates.

He is now 4-0 in his career in elimination games with an 0.95 ERA. When your back is against a wall, you tap Charlie Morton’s shoulder.

“When you pitch in the postseason, you’re kind of fighting,” Morton said. “You’re fighting emotions, you’re fighting, like, you’re pretty energetic physically a lot of times, It’s obviously October, it’s the end of the regular season. You’re kind of in a spot where you really haven’t been all year.”

Charlie Time.

“The key is to find a balance,” Morton said. “I think I got to that spot a little bit later there, where I was like I was still pretty amped up and I was still pretty emotional but physically I think I was a little bit worn down. That might actually play a part of that in a good way.”

Charlie’s way.

The first out Morton recorded Monday gave him 200 innings pitched this season, the first time he has done that in his career. The second batter, elfin Houston star Jose Altuve, homered to nearly dead center. Morton and the Rays trailed 1-0.

And then the door closed. Morton closed it with runners on second and third in that same first inning with a flyout.

“We got him to 30 pitches,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who has seen it all before from Morton, the winning pitcher for Houston in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. “... If we got a single there at the end of the first inning, it’s 3-0. That would have changed the game a little bit.”

Morton changed it back.

“He got that last out, which was big and then he settled in and got a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better,” Hinch said.

Morton threw 31 pitches that first inning, and 52 through two. But he settled down and in: three hits, just that one run and nine strikeouts. He fanned the last two batters he faced, including his pal Altuve, whom he caught looking with a righteous curveball. When he left the game, the revived and suddenly homer-happy Rays led 8-1.

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“Outstanding,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Certainly, we weren’t expecting that after the first two innings, he had 50-plus pitches.”

Kevin Kiermaier, whose three-run homer began the Rays’ scoring onslaught, said, “Charlie’s been our horse all year, and he’s pitched in the big moments throughout his whole career, and once again today, elimination game, it’s just hard to beat him.”

The soft-spoken Morton has pitched loud and clear all season with a baseball or baseball game in his hand. He will receive votes for the AL Cy Young Award, a fourth- or fifth-place vote, though certainly not enough to mount an assault on Astros gorilla right-handers Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, who dominated the Rays across the first two games of this series.

It’s why they got him.

But Monday did not demand art so much as it demanded accountability. The Rays were hanging by a thread.

They wouldn’t even have gotten as far as this without Morton, who this season, after signing a two-year, $30-million deal, set career highs in wins (16), ERA (3.05) and strikeouts (240). Since yielding a season-high six runs at Houston in late August, Morton is 5-0 with a 2.27 ERA in seven starts since Sept. 1.

Monday, he seriously outdueled Astros starter Zack Greinke, who left inside of four innings after serving up three homers and six runs.

It’s why they got him.

Morton’s five innings also preserved, to a certain extent, the Rays bullpen, which will need an army of arms in an “opener” acid test Tuesday for Game 4. It’s Rays relievers against Verlander, who will throw on three days of rest.

But the Rays had to get there first.

And they did.

Winning pitcher: Charlie Morton.

It’s why they got him.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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