HOUSTON — In all the celebrating, fully clothed and otherwise, of the Astros’ triumph over the Red Sox in the American League Division Series, there was an unsung hero. Little was said or written about Charlie Morton, starting pitcher in the decisive Game 4 in Boston.
Quickly forgotten was the lanky 6-foot-5 righthander who battled into the fifth inning with six strikeouts and a 2-1 lead, outpitching last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello.
After serving a home run to Xander Bogaerts in the first inning, Morton settled into a groove. He nibbled at the knees with a sweeping curve and remarkable sinker that on at least one occasion hit 97 on the radar gun.
It’s worth noting that among all active big-league pitchers, Morton ranks fourth in lowest home-run ratio. He lives on the low corners. No one is better suited for surviving in that diabolical bandbox, Fenway Park.
To end the second inning he threw a 2-2 curve to Dustin Pedroia that was either on or just off the inside edge. Mark Wegner called strike 3. Sox manager John Farrell, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy, protested vigorously enough to get himself ejected.
Morton gained strength and precision as the game progressed. But after he retired the first batter in the fifth and walked the second, A.J. Hinch pressed the panic button, as baseball managers tend to do in the postseason.
In a steady drizzle that Hinch feared could develop into a full drenching, he had his ace, Justin Verlander, warming in the bullpen. Hinch did not want Morton returning to the mound after a long interruption.
Perhaps he was overreacting to the threat, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey dumping 52 inches, you can’t blame a Houstonian for going psycho over rain. Once Verlander was fully heated, Hinch figured it would be a waste to let him linger.
So the manager ushered in the 34-year-old righthander, who admitted he was not prepared for this assignment. He had never relieved – “not even in Little League.”
Complicating the situation was the rain-slicked mound. As a starter, Verlander would have done some landscaping with his feet. But he thought that would be improper for a bullpenner entering an inning in progress. “It was kind of like fly by the seat of your pants,” he said.
The first batter he faced was Andrew Benintendi. Verlander started him off with fastballs, 96-97 mph. As he delivered the fourth one, his foot slipped. He slipped again on the next pitch, a slider. “One of the worst pitches to go to when you’re slipping,” he admitted.
Indeed, a hanging slider is good for nothing but Home Run Derby. It becomes a slow fastball, belt-high. The lefthanded Benintendi jacked it over the right-field fence, putting the home team ahead 3-2.
As the inning continued, TV cameras repeatedly panned to Morton sitting in the dugout. His head was not hanging or covered by a towel. His ruggedly handsome face never betrayed the slightest disappointment.
That’s because Morton is the consummate pro. Heading into the postseason, there was much media speculation on whether he would lose his place in the rotation to Lance McCullers or Collin McHugh, neither of whom put together a season anywhere close to Morton’s 14-7.
Morton, who at age 33 led his team in victories, would not be drawn into a debate that never should have been. “I’ll pitch anywhere, any time,” he said.
As it turned out, Verlander found enough footing to hold the Sox scoreless for the next 2 1/3 innings and emerge with the win – 5-4 — that could have, should have been Morton’s.
Several acclaimed heroes emerged late in this game. In the eighth inning, Alex Bregman tied it, 3-3, by clearing the famous Green Monster of left field. He took advantage of Chris Sale — another ace starter moonlighting in relief.
Evan Gattis extended the rally with a one-out single. With two outs, Sale was replaced by Craig Kimbrel, the best closer in the league. But he walked George Springer, which set up Josh Reddick, who drilled a 99-mph pitch for a single to bring in the go-ahead run. The Astros led from then on to take the best of five series 3 games to 1.
There’s nothing like an Astros clubhouse after a win. Designated DJ Springer plays loud music ranging from hip-hop to salsa to reggae to rock to country, often accompanied by strobe lights and fog.
This is a team of multiple ethnicities and nationalities. It’s much like the hopelessly sprawling, chaotic but welcoming city it represents. One in four Houstonians are foreign-born. You won’t hear many people here complaining about immigrants.
Houston, Hinch observed, “is still rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey. . . . This is emotional for us. We want to win for the fans and win for us. We’re proud to wear our Houston Strong patch.”
In the days following last month’s massive flooding, 16 of the Astros players met with evacuees to provide emotional and physical support.
In light of all that, this division series against Boston may have been the most uplifting sporting event in Houston’s 187-year history. Tens of thousands streamed into Minute Maid Park on Sunday and Monday to cheer together and watch the Boston games on the “El Grande” screen.
When the action ended at Fenway, the air in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse quickly filled with a mist of champagne, beer and cigar smoke. And with a clinching that carries you to a League Championship Series – fifth ever for this franchise — there must be something more.
The 30-year-old Reddick strolled through the locker room wearing only his American-flagged speedo that he breaks out on special occasions.
“If we keep doing this,” he said, “I may ride the parade in this thing.”
Please spare us. Let’s be more like Charlie Morton. Poised, reserved, impeccably professional, not seeking attention for yourself.