On a seventy-three degree, roof-open April evening in Houston, Charlie Morton made his Houston Astros debut with a stinging fastball up and in on Jean Segura’s hands. Segura swung through the strong offering, looked at a second one for strike two, spit on several sweeping sliders and then somehow fought off a heavy sinking fastball off the handle of the bat down the right field line for a BABIP dragon-single.
Okay. Not exactly the start Morton was looking for. But: weak contact! Just bad luck.
Mitch Haniger took the second plate appearance and made some more weak contact - a tapped ground ball to short that Haniger only just beat to first base to avoid a double play.
So, the early right-handed batters made weak contact on the ground, as was expected.
But how would the big left-handed bats fare?
After Haniger successfully stole second on a sailing throw into center field by Evan Gattis, Robinson Cano struck out swinging on a curve in the dirt. Then Nelson Cruz broke his lumber and bounced out weakly...on the ground...and just like that, Charlie Morton’s first inning at Minute Maid Park was over. One hit, no solid contact at all, and that’s it.
After a quick bottom half of the first that featured a nice walk on a close 3-2 pitch for Alex Bregman and little else, Charlie Morton returned to the mound and enticed a ground ball out from the ever-dangerous Kyle Seager and struck Astro-killer Danny Valencia out looking on 96 miles per hour gas. After very solid contact on a first-pitch ambush double by Mike Zunino, lefty-hitting Jarrod Dyson popped out weakly to Carlos Correa in shallow centerfield. This writer couldn’t help but imagine Reillocity salivating, at this point.
Carlos Beltran looked a little bit better at the plate in his first plate appearance of the game than he had the first two games of the season. He still made an out (ground out to third) but he looked better; more comfortable. Yuli Gurriel followed with a ground out of his own before Evan Gattis laced a double off his front foot down the left field line. Josh Reddick (he of embarrassing same-handed splits fame) had a decent plate appearance and lined out to right field to end the inning.
Charlie Morton, who sat comfortably between 94-96 miles per hour in the first two innings, returned to the mound for the top of the third and promptly induced a ground ball out from left-handed nine-hole hitter Leonys Martin. Rolling the lineup over, Segura flew out to Jake Marisnick and Mitch Haniger worked a two-out walk before Robinson Cano tapped extremely weakly right back to Charlie Morton for the third out.
And at this point, Charlie Morton was flat-out cruising All of his pitches were at his command, his fastball was still easily sitting between 94-96 miles per hour, his breaking stuff was exploding ten feet from the plate...it was a textbook clinic through three innings.
George Springer struck out in the top of the third inning but reached on a wild pitch before Alex Bregman pulled his hands in on a 95 mile per hour fastball on the inside black and delivered a Biggio special - a blistered double lined into the left field corner.
That brought all-universe hitter Jose Altuve - the two-time (and reigning) batting champion, to the plate with two speedy runners in scoring position and less than two outs. What do you think happened?
Well, Altuve struck out. So you were wrong. Don’t feel bad, though...pretty much everybody else was wrong too. Altuve would actually go on to be 0-6 in the game - obviously a huge rarity for him.
Carlos Correa came up as the last chance to drive in runs for the Astros in the third inning and flew out easily to Leonys Martin to end the inning.
Despite the offensive frustration early, it is worth noting that the Astros had runners in scoring position in each of the first three innings against a very tough left-handed starting pitcher in James Paxton. That in and of itself doesn’t necessarily equate to a victory, moral or otherwise, but it was certainly encouraging to note.
Nelson Cruz proved to be up to the task and led off the fourth inning with a scalded double on a fat fastball up in the zone and immediately, Charlie Morton was in trouble in the fourth. Kyle Seager did Morton a favor and popped out on a can of corn to Josh Reddick in left field on the second pitch of the at-bat, and Danny Valencia tested George Springer’s visual acuity (did he lose this ball in the lights briefly? It looked like it) and his athleticism on a line drive to right field that Springer made a diving, tumbling catch on before springing up and getting the ball back into the infield, keeping Cruz at second. Mike Zunino, after he jailbroke a fastball for a double in his first plate appearance, was fed a steady diet of sliders in his second appearance and rolled over to short on one to end the inning and strand Cruz at second.
If you’re wondering why this recap has been so detailed so far, it has been partial because this writer is excited to be back writing again...but mostly so that we might reach this point: where one might understand just how good Charlie Morton really was tonight. The box score looks good, but the performance was even better than the box score implies and really needs to be broken out in detail like this to be fully appreciated.
Seattle, who hadn’t had a lead at any point in the 2017 season through the first twenty-two innings they played, finally took a 2-0 lead after Charlie Morton gave up a two-run home run to Jean Segura in the top of the fifth inning. It was the fifth hit of the game for the Mariners, and Segura was fooled on it and was only just able to keep his hands back long enough to flick the hanging slider into the first few rows in right field. Morton had barely eclipsed the seventy pitch mark through five innings and was losing on the scoreboard, but he really performed well to that point. His final two pitches of the night (pitches number 89 and 90 in the sixth inning) were each 93 miles per hour fastballs that equaled the slowest four-seam fastballs of the evening, but he was still popping the mitt at 94-96 miles per hour in the plate appearance before that, and the fastballs to Zunino (the final batter he faced) appeared to be more geared towards inducing contact - it didn’t appear to this writer that fatigue was too great a factor.
It is worth mentioning that Evan Gattis played a huge role in this game. He had some issues blocking pitches, and he had an issue throwing to second on a stolen base attempt early, but his pitch receiving and presentation were stellar tonight and deserve recognition. If his effort level and abilities in that regard persist, it is likely that this writer has penned his last cross word about the burly backstop. It didn’t hurt that Gattis also had a pair of beefy hits on the night, both on breaking balls that he yanked down the left field line, and a key walk in extra innings.
The Astros saw Gurriel, Gattis, and Marwin Gonzalez (pinch hitting) each single in the bottom of the seventh inning before George Springer doubled down the line in left field and tied the game at two. If you tuned in at the end or already know how this one turned out, yes, George Springer drove in all five Astros runs in this game.
And there the score stayed, thanks to solid (sometimes spectacular...more on Chris Devenski in a minute) relief pitching on both sides...until the top of the thirteenth when Jandel Gustave lost the ability to find the strike zone and walked the bases loaded with no outs. Brad Peacock came in with the bases loaded and walked in a run on the first batter he faced, then buckled down and retired the side without further damage - hitting 95 miles per hour on multiple instances in relief, interestingly enough. Peacock looked surprisingly effective and probably deserves to be mentioned more for the job he did in this game than he has been.
In the bottom half of the 13th, Chase De Jong made his major league debut in a save situation (poor kid, ) and performed pretty well, considering that he was only there on paternity relief and ended up having to make his MLB debut. Evan Gattis walked to lead off the inning in his third solid plate appearance of the night, and two outs later, Nori Aoki slashed a two-out single to left field to set up some incredible fireworks on the field, in the stands, in the living room of this writer’s house, and to fire up the smoke machine in Club Astros.
Enjoy for yourself, go watch it again at this link:
I mentioned Chris Devenski earlier...if you didn’t hear, he threw four scoreless innings of relief with seven strikeouts. The only base runner he allowed was a single walk. He was absolutely overpowering and certainly deserves a bright spotlight for his performance.
There’s no doubt that it was the George Springer show tonight, folks, but don’t forget how good Charlie Morton and Chris Devenski were.