Atlanta Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud noticed his starter, Charlie Morton, walking funny as he returned to Minute Maid Park’s third-base dugout at the conclusion of Tuesday’s second inning against the Houston Astros.
“That one got me good,” Morton told him.
Morton had retired back-to-back hitters despite taking a 102 mph one-hopper off the bat of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel and reacted the way pitchers normally do after absorbing hard comebackers that cause only temporary pain. Morton underwent an initial X-ray that, according to Braves manager Brian Snitker, didn’t reveal a break. He threw some baseballs against a net, surmised that the pain was tolerable when he wasn’t running and came back out for the bottom of the third.
Six pitches later, Morton’s season ended.
It happened on a sharp curveball to Jose Altuve, located perfectly at the bottom of the strike zone for a caught-looking strikeout. Morton noticeably grimaced as he finished his delivery. He exited after a quick visit by the Braves’ athletic trainer then underwent another X-ray that revealed a fractured right fibula. Before Game 1 of the World Series concluded — with a 6-2 victory by a Braves team that scored five runs in the first three innings — Morton had been taken to a local imaging center, where he was fitted for a boot.
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The Braves, three wins away from their first championship in a quarter-century, must now move on without him.
“I hate it for him,” said Snitker, who wouldn’t reveal his plans to replace Morton on the roster. “He’s such a great person — great person and teammate. I really hate it for him because I know he’s really looking forward to this run with us. So we’ll move on.”
The Braves’ initial plans to move on began almost immediately after Gurriel’s grounder struck Morton’s leg and bounced in the direction of first base for a fortunate out. A call went into the left-center-field bullpen demanding that relievers begin to get loose, notably A.J. Minter, the reliable left-hander who proved capable of tackling multiple innings in a pinch during last year’s National League Championship Series. By the time the third inning began, Minter understood he might get called on much earlier than usual.
“I just knew I was trying to cover as many innings as I possibly could,” he said.
Minter ultimately threw 43 pitches, more than he ever had in his career, and came within an out of completing three innings for only the second time. He became the first of three relievers — before Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek — who limited a dangerous Astros lineup to two runs in 5⅔ innings, paving the way for Braves closer Will Smith to successfully tackle the ninth inning with a four-run lead.
“Every single person in that bullpen has a huge heart, has huge fight,” d’Arnaud said.
Morton signed a one-year, $20 million extension that included a 2023 club option in the second week of September, near the tail end of another spectacular season. The 37-year-old right-hander went 14-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 185⅔ regular-season innings and was appearing in his third World Series — with his third different team — in a five-year span. He began the postseason as a critical member of a rotation trio that also included Max Fried and Ian Anderson and held the keys to a long-elusive Braves championship.
Minter went to see Morton at his locker as soon as he finished the third inning.
“You could tell he was devastated,” Minter said, “but he wasn’t going to show it.”
The Braves had already lost superstar center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. to a torn ACL and vaunted starting pitcher Mike Soroka to a retorn Achilles. Marcell Ozuna, signed to a four-year, $65 million contract over the offseason, has been away from the team since late May after police arrested him for allegedly assaulting his wife. After that, the Braves acquired four outfielders before the end of July. Near the end of the NL Division Series, one of those new outfielders, Jorge Soler, tested positive for COVID-19 and was away from the team for nine critical days.
Now the Braves, an 88-win team that won the NL pennant with a shocking triumph over the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers, must scramble again.
D’Arnaud called the loss of Morton “a dagger.”
“But I believe all of us are going to just stay together, stay tight and just keep loving each other,” d’Arnaud said.
D’Arnaud’s concerns were mainly centered around Morton, who is expected to be fully healed for the start of spring training next year.
“I haven’t seen him yet,” d’Arnaud said moments after Game 1. “I can’t wait to give him a hug.”
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