This is not the season he wanted, and not the season you expected.
Charlie Morton had command problems and arm issues, and the highest ERA he’s had since he was in Pittsburgh five years ago.
And when he stepped on to the mound for Game 3 against the Yankees on Wednesday night in the American League Division Series, it had been 11 days in between outings and nearly three weeks since he last won a game.
There was plenty of reason to be concerned and, really, only one reason to be hopeful: He’s Charlie Freakin' Morton.
It was the nickname he picked up during Octobers past in Houston, and he has carried it with him to Tampa Bay. Morton wasn’t untouchable Wednesday night in San Diego, but he was pretty darned good. He gave the Rays five solid innings and left with a 5-2 lead.
“If I can limit them for a few innings there and we can put some runs on the board, it’s a giant momentum shift,” Morton said. “It’s really difficult to get through five and be down by quite a few runs, especially against our bullpen. It’s just not an enviable position.”
Morton, 36, retired the first seven batters he faced before running into trouble in the third. Once Brett Gardner got on with an opposite-field single, Morton was forced to pitch from the stretch and said he couldn’t find a comfortable delivery. He gave up a single, a walk, a sacrifice fly and another walk before retiring Luke Voit on a grounder to get out of the inning with only one run coming across the plate.
“Anytime, early on, a starter can limit the damage to a run or two and then his offense gets in a groove, it’s a great recipe,” Morton said. “Getting Voit out there in the third and limiting the damage was a big deal.”
This is why the Rays are paying Morton a team-high $15 million. His regular-season numbers may have been subpar (a 2-2 record with a 4.74 ERA) but Tampa Bay finished on top of the American League East anyway. Morton could earn his entire paycheck if he helps the Rays go on a deep October run.
Morton is now 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in three postseason starts for the Rays over the past two seasons.
“Pretty outstanding,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The (11-day) rest we were cautiously optimistic that it was going to do him good. He looked really crisp, really fresh, just got the ball in the zone really quickly, which was encouraging. The only hiccup is when Gardner got the first hit and it put him in the stretch where he just hadn’t gotten the rhythm or the timing on that.
“But just an outstanding performance on his part.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.