ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On the face of it, a pitching matchup between Charlie Morton and Zack Greinke is more than tune-in-worthy. Both are outstanding pitchers, among the best in baseball. This season, Greinke tied for fourth in the majors with 18 wins; Morton won 16. Greinke was ninth in ERA (2.93); Morton was 11th (3.04). Greinke ranked sixth in innings pitched (208 2/3); Morton was ninth in strikeouts (240).
That, in itself, is enough reason to watch Morton’s Tampa Bay Rays take the field for Game 3 of their American League Division Series against Greinke and the mighty Houston Astros. Houston won the first two games of the MLB postseason matchup, both at Minute Maid Park, largely due to the dominance of starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. With the Rays trying to keep their season alive, starting pitching has become the dominant theme of the series. This, too, is a good reason to watch Morton and Greinke go toe-to-toe.
Of course, you will have to take our word on all this. “It’s nice,” Greinke said during his pre-start news conference on Sunday, when asked his thoughts on the series thus far. The entire affair was a 43-word classic by Greinke that was belligerently dull, even by his standards. Oh well.
That old-school starting pitching narrative is fairly ironic as it applies to the Rays, a tech-savvy franchise with an organizational approach so innovative — even disruptive — that if the chronically under-supported franchise ever decides to relocate, maybe it should consider moving to Silicon Valley. But the narrative is a rich one, not just because of the respective statuses of Morton and Greinke, but because of a treasure trove of subplots that will be trotted out Monday.
Let’s start with Greinke, one of three active 200-game winners in baseball, whom the Astros acquired at the trade deadline in a blockbuster deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Houston already had arguably the AL’s best roster, but it did seem as though a midrotation starter would bolster the Astros’ outlook. Well, when you’ve got Verlander and Cole heading up the rotation, the bar for a third starter can be held pretty high. Thus it falls to Greinke to follow the big footprints left before him by Houston’s co-aces in Games 1 and 2. And he’ll do so with a very different style, or so we think.
“I’m not sure about that,” Greinke said. “I haven’t thought about it too much.”
How big were those aforementioned footprints? Verlander held Tampa Bay to one hit over seven scoreless innings on Friday, striking out eight and walking three, a pitching line that translated to a game score of 80. Cole one-upped the guy known to his teammates as — ironically — “JV” by striking out 15 in Game 2, falling just two shy of Bob Gibson’s postseason record. The Rays went scoreless against Cole, too, as he went 7⅔ innings, allowing four hits and one walk. His game score was 85. During each of the previous two years, there were only two game scores of 80 or better during the entire postseason — the Astros have matched that by themselves in two games.
For all his regular-season excellence, Greinke’s postseason record is spotty. He’s 3-4 with a 4.03 ERA over 11 playoff starts, with a game score log that tops out at 78. In other words, Greinke has never done in the postseason what he just watched teammates Verlander and Cole do during the first two games against Tampa Bay.
Greinke has been outstanding since joining the Astros, though he’s had plenty of support. He’s 8-1 over 10 starts with a 3.02 ERA. The Astros have averaged 6.9 runs per game with Greinke on the mound, which doesn’t hurt. And as much attention as Houston’s starters have drawn the last few days, it almost overshadows an Astros offense that has scored more runs than any team except the Yankees over the last three seasons.
That means Greinke may have a buffer that Morton doesn’t. The Rays may almost be looking forward to facing Greinke after watching two games of blistering heat from Verlander and Cole, but they’ve also got to tamp down an offense that has scored nearly seven runs per game with Greinke starting. And if the Astros get their offense churning, they’ll be doing it against a pitcher they know a heck of a lot better than the recently acquired Greinke.
“For me, there’s really no mystery with the Astros,” Morton said. “It’s just kind of they are who they are to me. I mean, I know those guys pretty well, on and off the field. I’m well aware of the challenges that they present. And I know what they’re made of.”
Morton went 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA for the Astros during the 2017 and 2018 seasons before departing for the Rays last winter for a two-year, $30 million free-agent deal (plus a vesting option for a third season), a contract that has been a bargain during his first season with the Rays. Morton’s innings total (194 2/3) might look modest by traditional standards, but he threw 53 more frames than any other member of Tampa Bay’s staff. The Rays have talent, depth and a preponderance of stuff, but they also battled a landslide of pitching injuries all season. It’s not a stretch to say that without the modicum of stability Morton provided, the Rays would not be playing the Astros in the playoffs.
“What we’ve seen the last two games against Houston, they had it on their side with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They’ve kind of been there, done that, both of them. Now we’ve got a guy that the irony is that he was a part of that group, but he’s doing it in a Rays uniform now. So that helps.
“As far as Charlie on the mound, I would say I think it’s a similar feeling as to how clubs feel about when Verlander takes the mound or Gerrit Cole takes the mound.”
None of this comes as any kind of surprise to the Astros, with whom Morton established himself as a beloved clubhouse leader and pillar of the community. In modern baseball, players change teams. It’s the nature of things. And sometimes, those players will end up facing their old team. It happens all the time and it’s a reliable subplot for those who cover the sport. But sometimes the “taking on his old team” narrative rings a few extra tones. This is one of those times.
“I love Charlie,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said at the series’ outset. “And everything that he’s about. I routinely text with him to check on him and his family. It’s weird, still weird, to see him across the way. It’s still weird to see him in a [different] uniform, especially in this building at this time of the year.”
Morton’s embrace of the city of Houston, and the love it showed him in return, was never more evident than in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in late August of the Astros’ championship season of 2017. After the club was temporarily relocated to Tropicana Field for a “home” series against the Texas Rangers, the Astros made an emotional return to Houston the following week, and when they took the field against the New York Mets, they became a symbol for a community determined to move forward in the wake of tragedy.
During that time, Morton was as eloquent as anyone in articulating what everyone was dealing with.
“Having my family here, my wife and my kids, and to see the goodness in people … you know it’s here,” Morton said back then. “In times like this, when people are going through some of the worst times they’ve experienced, the goodness in people really shines. It makes it easier for us on the road and unable to do anything. I’m just really, really proud to be an Astro. I’m so proud to be a small part of the city and the community.”
Houston began its recovery, and the Astros refocused themselves on the quest for their first title. And just two months later, they finished that quest — and it was Morton on the mound at the end, delivering the climactic pitch to Corey Seager at Dodger Stadium. No matter what happens, Morton will always be the pitcher who was on the hill when Houston captured its first World Series.
Now, Morton’s task is very different. He must take on a group of former teammates whom he knows so well, both as people and as a dangerous team, and there is no time for nostalgia and remembrance. The Astros have yet another ace lined up to pitch against a hungry Rays offense and all of those potent bats lined up to knock their old teammate off the mound. The scene will once again be the Trop, but instead of the 3,000 or so fans who showed up to watch the displaced Astros and Rangers back in 2017, a rare full house is expected to be on hand Monday. Same place, completely different vibe and a tremendous opportunity for the Tampa Bay franchise.
“Trying to connect this organization, this team, with the fan base here because I feel like there’s a certain window you have, a lot of times, to establish that,” Morton said. “Especially with younger fans, people that are first-generation Floridians.
“So I think that’s something that certainly motivates me a little bit for, you know, being now a local, living in Bradenton. But playoff baseball and success, I mean, there are a myriad of motivations that come with that.”
These are the ironies and subplots that make the fabric of postseason baseball so rich. The teams have more narrow-focused goals in mind. The Rays just want to survive to play on Tuesday. The Astros want to end the series right away, so they can line up their staff for what looks like an inevitable clash with the powerful bats of the Yankees, and in doing so, putting off any decision on who might be their fourth starter until the next round.
“We would love to be done and close the series out,” Hinch said. “There’s no reason for us to want to play any more games other than the ones we have to. If you can escape a series without using, for us in particular, JV and Cole [a second time], that would be outstanding setting up for the next series.”
So, yes, it’s a good pitching matchup and it’s the playoffs, and that’s always enough. But Greinke vs. Morton is more than that, for both pitchers, and if you like your baseball with a few extra layers of rich subtext, don’t miss Game 3 on Monday.
“Everybody has a better day when they cross paths with Charlie Morton,” Hinch said. “I think everybody in this room would agree. Everybody in our room would agree. Everybody across the way. But I also think we showed pretty well that we can set that [aside], compartmentalize that a little bit and try to beat him.”