Watching Charlie Morton step out of the bullpen after finishing his warm-ups and begin the long jog through the outfield grass to the pitcher’s mound, where, upon arrival, he will start Game 4 of the World Series against the Dodgers in front of a sellout crowd of 41,000 people at Minute Maid Park, will be a bit like watching a child attempt to read for the first time. For viewers, emotions will no doubt range from sympathetic concern to downright amusement as the 33 year-old veteran takes the ball in what will no doubt be the defining appearance of his career.
Let me explain. Pittsburgh sports fans are known for their traditions. Steeler Nation has the Terrible Towel. For Penguins buffs, it’s hating the Flyers. And for Pirates supporters, no custom is more perennially practiced than the gradual acceptance of a bone-deep self-loathing as our beloved Buccos put up yet another lackluster performance in the standings. They never finish last; oh, no, that would be too easy. Instead, they leave you with just enough to make you swallow your pride and fish your Marte jersey out of the trash when April rolls around and you think to yourself, “Maybe this is the year.” When exactly this feeling of utter hopelessness and betrayal truly sets in varies by individual, but it manifests without fail. The real troopers of the bunch hold out until it’s mathematically impossible to make the playoffs. For some, it’s the day after yet another uneventful trade deadline. If you’re like me, it’s before the season even starts, when you look at the roster and see that Andrew McCutchen is still on it (but that’s for another day).
All this to say that you can be excused for not really caring what’s going on in the baseball world right now. Trust me, I know how depressing it can be to sit idly by as a new team claims the glory each October and all you can do is reflect on whether or not the pierogi races are rigged. But, my defeated comrades, there’s something you might want to hear: Charlie Morton is pitching in the World Series.
That’s right. You didn’t misread. Good ol’ Ground Chuck is taking the rubber tonight for the ‘Stros against lefty Alex Wood in the Fall Classic, and he has the chance to put the Dodgers in a must-win situation with one left to play in Houston after blanking the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. The same good ol’ Ground Chuck that you loved to hate for so many years – the butt of many, many jokes in my cynical household.
Except he’s not the same good ol’ Ground Chuck. He’s shed the skin of mediocrity and emerged a monster of fire breathing fastballs and wipeout curves (he still has the goatee, though).
Let’s take a look at Charlie’s best year with the Pirates, 2011, keeping in mind that he pitched in Pittsburgh for seven years, and that most of those years were far worse than this. He was decidedly average, with a 10-10 record and a 3.83 ERA. Now let’s compare that to his first year – his only year – with the Astros: 14-7 with a 3.62. That’s a career high in wins, folks. Other career-highs? Batting average against (.228). WHIP (1.19). Hits per nine (7.67). Strikeouts per nine (10.00). Oh, and his four-seamer averaged 95-plus on the radar gun.
There’s no way of knowing exactly what triggered this evolution. Obviously, part of it has to do with the caliber of team he’s playing for. But that doesn’t explain everything. I propose that Morton was always this good, and that our favorite sea-based outlaws managed to limit his success by teaching him to pitch to contact at the cost of velocity. Instead of building off of his natural talent, they stubbornly hammered him into the mold of a classic sinker-baller, thus condemning him to the eternal depths of the back end of the rotation. You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Ray Searage.
Whatever the reasons may be, Charlie Morton is going to find himself on the biggest stage of his life tonight, and you can bet the Pirates are wishing he was still in the black and gold.
Game 4 begins 8:00 ET. It is available to watch on FOX or listen to on ESPN Radio, HOU KBME 790, or LAD 570 LA Sports.
Statistics courtesy of mlb.com and baseball-reference.com.