‘Amazing’: An Astros favorite, Braves starter Charlie Morton prepares to beat his former team (again)

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HOUSTON – Charlie Morton is a teammate turned tormentor in this town, delivering the Houston Astros a 2017 World Series title with a legendary Game 7 performance and denying them a return trip last year as a Tampa Bay Ray. As Morton did, he has quietly entered the city to play for another World Series with the Atlanta Braves.

And that, really, should explain everything: Carrying three franchises into a World Series in a five-year span is legend stuff, a reputation so well-earned that All-Star teammate Freddie Freeman says Morton remains “the best big-game pitcher there is in this sport.”

Yet Morton, who has pondered retirement in recent years and turns 38 next month, is far from a mercenary. Morton leaves behind everything he has brought to the table. His balance of reserved and determined makes it easy for teammates to listen.

So when Morton takes the ball for Game 1 of this World Series, his presence will extend far beyond the trivia answer as the right-hander who threw the final pitch of a Fall Classic for the Astros, and the first pitch of another against them.

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His two seasons here saw him move easily from pitching sage to overall teammate, his accountability extending so far as to express contrition for a sign-stealing scandal that did not directly involve him. They are not forgetting.

“The best you can ever have,” says Astros second baseman Jose Altuve. He’s amazing. He’s amazing.”

The recent October resume should be enough, starting with those four innings of two-hit relief to close out the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, a battle that will be remembered for decades, and for reasons far beyond a clutch relief performance on three days’ rest.

Yet the Astros don’t have their lone World Series trophy without it.

Morton got the whole face-the-old-team out of the way when he signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and beat them in Game 3 of an AL Division Series that the heavily-favored Astros barely survived in five. In the 2020 playoff bubble, he won ALCS Games 1 and 7 against the Astros, laying the groundwork for a 3-0 Tampa Bay series lead and halting the blooding when the Astros nearly crawled out of that hole.

You can call it clutch, but current and former teammates see something beyond.

“He’s a very special guy, and he’s impacted a lot of guys in this clubhouse and a lot of guys who are no longer in this clubhouse,” says Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr., who started that 2017 Game 7 but will miss this World Series due to a forearm injury.

“I think what I learned from him the most is just every day at the ballpark is a blessing. Be a great teammate, put your family first, and always be there to help the guys.

“Because that’s something that Chuck-O was big on.”

It is a mentality forged through a 20-year pro career that has moved in anything but a linear fashion, with injuries, maddening inconsistency and a long road to developing an appropriate pitch mix delaying Morton’s star appointment. He finally found it as a Philadelphia Phillie in 2016, when he junked a sinkerballer that led to unlucky outcomes and started throwing harder and up in the zone, getting ahead of a trend that would soon consume the industry. A hamstring injury ended his season, but the Astros were able to coax even more from him. They gave him a 2-year contract and coaxed him into signing a third-year.

When the Rays decided not to pick up a 2021 option, the Braves gave him the same $15 million he earned the previous two seasons. It was a wild full-circle moment for player and the franchise that drafted him in 2002.

“If you have a 14-pronged fork, he’s been on every single road,” says Freeman, “and it took him a little bit longer than I’m sure he wanted to figure out the success.

“But when he got here, he figured it out.”

Long enough to win 107 major league games, make two All-Star teams, win one ring and, Tuesday night in Game 1, shoot for another.

He says he’s exchanged recent text messages with Bregman, yet both teams are entering do-not-disturb mode in service of winning a championship. It is October, and Houston is home. The bonds formed and the championship won will elicit emotions.

That’s just how it goes when you’re Morton, who ostensibly leaves it all on the field, yet always has a little bit more to give when he gets back to the clubhouse.

“I’m sure I’m going to feel some things when I get on that mound,” says Morton. “I don’t think there’s any way not to.”

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