ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays couldn’t be in a much worse predicament, trailing the MLB-best Astros two games to none in the best-of-five AL Division Series that resumes, and could end, Monday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
And they couldn’t feel any better about their chances to play again Tuesday since they have veteran All-Star and proven season savior Charlie Morton on the mound.
“I think it’s a huge confidence boost for everyone,’’ infielder Brandon Lowe said after Sunday’s workout. “Charlie has been so good for us all year. He’s been here before, and he’s been in much more difficult situations than this. I just think having him up there calm and collected, it will really help us.’’
The Rays actually pitched pretty well in the 6-2 and 3-1 losses in Houston; the problem was the Astros’ dynamic duo of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole pitched extraordinarily better.
Anticipating a boost of energy from an expected sellout Tropicana Field crowd of around 35,000 for the matinee start, and a bit more of a fair chance against Houston’s third ace, veteran righty Zack Greinke, the Rays are looking for Morton to keep them in the game and their season alive.
Which is pretty much where they were five days and 2,910 miles ago, when they sent Morton to the mound in Oakland for the win-or-go-home wild-card game. His five solid innings led them to a 5-1 victory.
In doing so, Morton became, one could say, the biggest big-game winner in baseball history, as the only pitcher with victories in three winner-take-all playoff games, having also earned W’s in Game 7 of the 2017 AL Championship Series and Game 7 of the World Series, which we’ll come back to shortly.
“I don’t know how much I relish in that, in those situations. I couldn’t tell you,’’ Morton said Sunday. “I try to take the ball every time I do, whether it’s in the regular season or the postseason, I try to take it, go out and do my job, execute pitches, try to stay as even-keeled as possible.
“But, I mean, there’s just no denying the situation we’re in. We got our backs to the wall a little bit here. So for me to get the opportunity to go out and try to get some quality innings, give our team a chance to win, yeah, these games are special when a lot’s on the line.’’
Which brings us back to Morton’s past experience, as he won those 2017 games for the Astros, suiting up with many of the same players he will be facing Monday, trying to stall their march to another championship while resuscitating his Rays’ title aspirations.
That challenge, Morton said, is twofold.
In part, that “you’re facing guys that you’re close with, you went through a lot with.’’
And the other, “that you know what they’re capable of.’’
All of which can make an interesting matchup more intriguing, with much more intensity than when he returned to Houston in August as the beloved ex-Astro who just happened to be working elsewhere.
“For me, there’s really no mystery with the Astros,’’ Morton said. “It’s just kind of, they are who they are to me. I know those guys pretty well, on and off the field. I’m well aware of the challenges that they present. And I know what they’re made of.’’
Spending three days in Houston during the playoffs, Morton said, was a bit “weird” due to his familiarity with the experience.
The Astros have their own feelings and talk openly about their respect and affection for Morton. And that’s deep, even though he spent only 2017-18 with them before the Astros’ bosses allowed him to leave as a free agent.
“We got the impression they weren’t really that interested,’’ Morton said.
The decision led to Morton signing a two-year, $30 million deal with the Rays that he said “was really a no-brainer.’’
“I love Charlie and everything that he’s about,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Friday in Houston before Game 1. “I routinely text with him to check on him and his family. It’s weird, still weird to see him across the way. It’s still weird to see him in a different uniform, especially in this building at this time of the year.
“But somehow you have to kind of get away from that emotion and go out and try to beat him. We’ll do that in Game 3.’’
Their feelings for Morton include some fun, too.
Reliever Will Harris brought up how much food the lithe Morton eats, noting he piles on food that looks like a mountain.
“It’s like have you ever seen the movie Elf, when he puts everything on the plate? It looks like that,’’ Harris said. “But it’s all really healthy stuff, like vegetables.’’
Hinch suggested that the Rays show a highlight video before Monday’s game, referencing the one the Astros showed before Morton’s August start, which seemed to get the right-hander choked up and off his game, as he allowed a season-high six runs.
The ha-has and the hugs will be on hold Monday, given the stakes and the stage.
“We’ve leaned on him so heavily, and he’s kind of risen to every challenge, every task we ask,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re going to ask another big one of him here come (Monday).’’
And they know they’ll feel pretty good about it.
“Knowing what he brings and the confidence he brings to every guy in this clubhouse when he takes the hill,’’ pitching coach Kyle Snyder said, “we’ll have all the confidence in the world we’re going to compete in a Game 4 in this series.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.