Rays

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) faces the Pittsburgh Pirates Monday, March 18, 2019 at Charlotte Sports Park.

Charlie Morton is a winner on the grandest of scales.

He won Game 7 of the 2017 World Series with the Houston Astros after throwing four innings of one-run ball to close the door on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In Game 4, he threw 6 ⅓ innings of one-run ball while striking out seven Dodgers.

Last year, nobody in baseball had a better winning percentage than Morton, who won his decisions 83 percent of the time, going 15-3.

Sure, Morton didn’t win Monday at Charlotte Sports Park against the Pirates, an organization he spent seven years with.

Anybody who watched him deliver five innings of two-hit, two-run ball that was no-hit ball with one out in the fourth inning, went home assured the Rays spent their winter money wisely.

Snapping curve ball after curve ball that dropped with devastating movement from a low three-quarters arm slot, Morton put on a scoreless clinic until the sixth, when he gave up a walk to catcher Jacob Stallings. Morton threw one of his best curves of the day to Stallings, a pitch that looked headed in the batter’s direction until a late turn across the plate for a strike. A single by leadoff hitter Pablo Reyes put two men on, and Morton exited with the outcome out of his control. Luck wasn’t on Rays reliever Casey Sadler’’s side when JB Shuck broke his bat on a single to left field to drive in the two runs charged to Morton.

Meanwhile, Morton was matched almost pitch for pitch by the Pirates’ big righty Nick Kingham, who was a rookie last year. He had a no-hitter going with two outs in the fourth inning, until it was broken up on a single off the scorching bat of Ji-Man Choi. The hit raised Choi’s batting average to .379.

The Rays scored in the sixth after Tommy Pham walked and was advanced to third on a line drive to center by Yandy Diaz. Brandon Lowe, hitting .359, drove in Pham with a sharp liner to right field. In the ninth, down 4-1, the Rays nearly made a comeback with their bench as 2015 first-round pick Garret Whitley drove in Emilio Bonifacio with a double but that was the extent of the damage as Jake Smolinksi flied out.

Morton, who had four strikeouts, is the rare case of a pitcher who at 35, has just pitched his two best seasons.

It’s been no easy task for Morton, who had Tommy John surgery and surgeries on both his hips. To watch him winding back and delivering fastballs at 95 mph on Monday, mixed in with curves, cutters and changeups, it would be impossible to know.

He credits part of his success to his short stint with the Phillies in 2015, when he was pushed to throw more curveballs. Since then, he has changed his workout regimen, his delivery, improved his timing and altered his selection of pitches. While he still employs a sinker, he says he no longer is a sinker-ball pitcher. He used to throw a split-finger fastball but says that’s been altered to a changeup even though it may mimic a splitter. “I’m more of a well-rounded pitcher,” he said.

The most important thing for him, like any athlete, is he has his health back. “Being healthy is huge,” he said.

What Morton may bring in equal to his talent is his winning ways from Houston.

Morton sees a winning team among his Rays teammates. “I think the talent is there,” he said.

“This clubhouse is a really close-knit group of guys.”

Morton is at times selfless, giving credit to his defense for making the plays behind him. That included a frightful moment in the first inning when Pirates first baseman Colin Moran rocketed a fly ball to right-center field. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier covered ground quickly to get to the ball, but so did Meadows, who found himself squished into the wall after Kiermaier leaped to make the catch but collided with Meadows.

Meadows, who was facing the team that traded him last year, needed a few moments to gather himself. “He landed on my head,” said Meadows. “It’s just a freak thing but I’m glad he was able to make the play. It felt a little weird, not great.”

Meadows said he was a little dazed after the play but is otherwise fine. He stayed in the game.

Morton also showed a bulldog toughness that will be a credit to the rotation when taking a curveball of a question from a reporter about his place in the rotation. “When I take the ball, I got to be the ace. It doesn’t matter what you think (if he is a No. 2 or No. 3 starter on a team).

“If I’m starting Game 5 (in the World Series) do you think my opinion of me is I’m the No. 5 starter?”

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