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  • The Astros revitalized the foundering career of 33-year-old Charlie Morton in 2017. In turn, Morton helped deliver the franchise its first World Series title with a relief outing for the history books.
By Tom Verducci
November 02, 2017

LOS ANGELES — How do you measure strength, as in the capacity of Houston Strong? Material strength, for example, can be defined as the ability to withstand an applied load without failure. It could be seen in the constellation of needle marks on the left thumb of shortstop Carlos Correa, who revealed only after the Astros won their first World Series Wednesday night that he had received pain-killing injections “every day” since he wrecked his thumb Oct. 14 in the postgame euphoria of his walkoff hit in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

“I look like a drug addict,” he joked. “My hand is just numb. I couldn’t feel anything for weeks. I couldn’t say anything, because I didn’t want the [other] teams to know.”

It was there in one of the most impressive postseason runs of all time, when Houston took out the three teams with the top payrolls in baseball, and climbed the financial ladder in proper order while doing so, from the Red Sox to the Yankees to the Dodgers.

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It was there every time the Astros faced a must-win situation. In three elimination games, two against the Yankees and one in World Series Game 7 against the Dodgers, they never trailed while outscoring their would-be conquerors, 16–2.

Mostly, it was there in how they responded to Hurricane Harvey, the most severe rainfall event in recorded United States history that hit the Houston area hard in late August. The Astros gave Houston and Southeast Texas a diversion at the very least, and a source of community pride and healing at its best. After the deluge, the Astros went 18–3 at home, including 8–1 in the postseason, all the while dealing with their own worries.

Moments after the World Series, Houston manager A.J. Hinch revealed that when the storm hit as the team was on the road, second baseman Jose Altuve “came up to me and asked how long would he have to play like this"—with his family back in Houston, getting surrounded by water. They were safe, but scared.

“If you want to humanize baseball, look at that story. And it will show you what these guys go through daily in their personal lives that leads to the professional lives. And on top of that I think we were able to really keep in perspective what was going on in Houston.”

Houston will host an emotional parade Friday for its world champions, and it will be full of pride, catharsis, relief, joy and more than a few tears.

“It’s huge,” said Craig Biggio, who has devoted 30 years to the Astros as a player and front office advisor, about the title. “We just had somebody leave our house yesterday to finally be able to return home. There are many people still waiting to return to their homes. The devastation is still obvious. There’s still debris piled up on families’ front yards. So for these guys to play so well through this, it’s pretty amazing.”

But to understand Houston Strong, you could do no better than to start with the ending. The Astros won the World Series with the ball in the hands of Charlie Morton, a 33-year-old, star-crossed journeyman, while two Cy Young Award winners, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, tossed in the bullpen, their services not required.

Morton joined Walter Johnson (1924), Joe Page (1947) and Bob Turley (1958) as the only pitchers to win World Series Game 7 with at least four innings of game-ending relief. Coupled with his win as a starter in ALCS Game 7, Morton became the first pitcher ever to win two Game 7s in the same postseason.

Morton’s story, and why the Astros believed in him even more than he believed in himself, helps explain why Houston at last has a World Series title.

After starter Lance McCullers allowed seven of the 13 batters he faced to reach base—four of them were hit by pitches—Hinch constructed an endgame of four relievers who were acquired from other organizations to almost no fanfare, but with an eye on analytics: Brad Peacock and his freakish Kimbrel-like fastball (2013 trade with Oakland) to Francisco Liriano and his wicked, untamed slider (2017 trade with Toronto) to Chris Devenski and his odd changeup (2012 trade with the White Sox) to the peripatetic Morton and his turbo-charged fastball and curve (signed as a free agent last year after an injury-shortened season with Philadelphia).

“The lowest point was probably last year,” Morton said, referring to when he tore his hamstring just 17 innings into his season with the Phillies, an injury that required his fourth career surgery. “We were staying in Hammonton, N.J., and I was a 33-year-old pitcher coming off surgery wondering who would want me. I thought maybe I was looking at a minor league free agent deal with somebody.”

The Astros raised eyebrows around the baseball world when they rushed to sign him after last season to a two-year, $14 million contract, plus incentives. Charlie Morton? The guy with the 46–71 career record and 4.54 ERA, making for the worst winning percentage of any active pitcher with at least 150 starts? The same guy who would be on his fourth team and has surgeries to his elbow and both hips in addition to his hamstring? The guy who took six years to get to the big leagues, only to go back down first to work with a mental skills coordinator who worked with soldiers at West Point, and then again to re-learn how to throw as a sinker-slider pitcher with a low arm slot?

Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Astros saw a different Morton. They saw a guy who was throwing his sinker and four-seamer 97 mph, a 5-mph improvement after he redesigned his training regimen after the 2015 season, losing 15 pounds and generating more speed with his body and arm. They also saw a guy who, in that brief time with the Phillies before he broke down again, owned the fifth-highest curveball spin rate of any pitcher who threw at least 50 curveballs.

Morton had long been interested in analytics himself, sharing such passion with his father, a Penn State graduate who works in finance. The Astros saw the spin on his curveball and realized he should be throwing it more, especially to lefthanders. It was a similar story to how they found Collin McHugh and his under-utilized high-spin curveball on the scrap heap.

“Through the ups and downs of the game, you can find the truth in the data,” Morton said.

Morton increased his curveball usage against lefties from 25% in 2015 with Pittsburgh, to 35% this year with Houston. Wise move. They hit .064 against the pitch.

“When hitters are [10] for 113 against a pitch, you throw it,” said pitching coach Brent Strom. “Credit the front office for recognizing his spin rate and his ability to throw his fastball for strikes. I hesitate to bring it up, because people like to make fun of what we do with spin rates. The heartbeat is still important, but the numbers don’t lie.

“The one thing we heard was that he was something of a pessimist, a glass half empty kind of guy.”

Said Hinch, “I think more accurately, he just doesn’t want to disappoint people. He’s a pleaser by nature. He wants to be successful for others, so there’s a selflessness to him. He’s tougher than he’s been given credit for because of how well he wants to do and how hard he pushes through.”

Morton went 14–7 for Houston, a career high in wins. He hit 99 mph with his fastball. His curveball equaled that of McCullers as the fastest-spinning hook in baseball. Batters hit .114 against it, lower than every pitcher but David Robertson and Corey Kluber. It was the arsenal of a No. 1 starter.

“The front office was all in on Charlie from the very beginning,” Hinch said. “They never sopped believing in him and telling us about his strengths. With guys like Charlie it’s easy to criticize the things he hasn’t done. He hasn’t stayed healthy, he hasn’t done this or that. But when you look at what his weapons are and think what he can be, it played out exactly the way our office told me it would.”

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That Morton should close out and win the game that brought Houston its first title was a testament to the front office’s data-based approach as well as to Hinch’s uncanny knack for departing from analytics at the right time. He had planned to give Morton the final three innings if the game fell that way, but stretched him to four just based on watching Morton throw, not a subset of numbers crunched in a Minute Maid Park boiler room.

When Morton was due to bat in the ninth inning, Hinch didn’t even bother asking him if felt strong enough to pitch the bottom of the ninth.

“Whatever you do, don’t swing,” Hinch told him.

“Take every pitch?”

“Take every pitch. You’re going to finish the game.”

Said Hinch, “The way he was pitching I wasn’t taking him out. I’d give up another out to have Charlie Morton close the game.”

 “To be honest,” Morton said, “it didn’t seem that stressful, didn’t feel like the World Series. We had a 5–1 lead, and the crowd had been taken out of it. It felt like a midseason game, so it was easy to just focus on what I had to do and not think about what was at stake.”

As thrilling as the World Series had been for six games, that’s how dreadfully dull Game 7 turned out to be. The Astros scored all of their runs within their first 10 plate appearances, all of them against the reprise of an awful Yu Darvish. The Dodgers righthander had pitched so poorly in Game 3, getting just five outs, that Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said he “was shocked” by it. Darvish could not put finish on his sliders because, he said, the World Series ball was slicker than the one used during the regular season.

To prepare for Game 7, Darvish threw his bullpen session with a World Series ball. It did not help at all. He kept flipping up the same lousy sliders he threw in Game 3. Roberts reacted slowly to the alarming lack of finish on Darvish’s pitches, which was evident from the start. When Darvish, already down 2–0, opened the second by allowing a walk and a double, Roberts stayed put. It helped that slumping Josh Reddick and McCullers offered up two easy outs.

Roberts was praying that Darvish could survive the inning, because his spot in the batting order was due up third in the bottom of the inning. It was a wrong-headed passive move that blew up on Roberts. George Springer unloaded a monster home run, pushing the lead to 5–0, and Roberts had to go get Darvish too late and burn his best set-up reliever, Brandon Morrow, for one batter, because now he would have to hit for Morrow in the bottom of the inning.

“I just can’t explain the results,” Roberts said of Darvish. “I really can’t.”

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The Astros joined the 2002 Angels, the 1955 Dodgers and the 1931 Cardinals to win a Game 7 on as few as five hits.

Think of how long the wait has been for Astros fans. The team first took the field in 1962 as the Colt .45s, back amid the scorching heat and swarms of mosquitos in old Colt Stadium, which was dismantled and shipped piecemeal to Mexico once the Astrodome, the Eight Wonder of the World, was built. Through 56 seasons Houstonians waited for a World Series championship. In the World Series era, only one franchise ever waited longer in one place to win its first World Series: the Philadelphia Phillies, who took the first 77 years since the first World Series to finally get one.

It was only four years ago that the Astros were so bad that they lost more than 105 games for a third straight year. One day while closing the 2013 season on a 15-game losing streak the Astros managed to get a 0.0 local TV rating; which means the folks at Nielsen could not prove that even one person cared enough about the Astros to actually watch them play.

Today Houston is a model franchise, the next flavor-of-the-month, as the Cubs were last year, to inspire narratives about “a window” that is only now opening for the Astros.

“We’re built to go to the playoffs multiple times,” Correa said.

That may be true, but this postseason proved the fickleness of the postseason. The Nationals were bounced by the weirdest sequence ever seen in a game; there are four ways to reach base without hitting the ball and the Cubs did it consecutively against Washington: walk, dropped third strike, catcher’s interference and hit by pitch. The Cubs got bounced when their relievers couldn’t throw strikes, and the Indians bowed out when their best pitcher, Corey Kluber, laid an egg.

The Dodgers, the team with the best record in baseball, lost four times to Houston in cruel and an unexpected ways: with their three best pitchers on the mound. Closer Kenley Jansen blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 2, Darvish imploded in Games 3 and 7, and Clayton Kershaw turned saboteur on a wild Game 5 when he couldn’t hold leads of 4–0 and 7–4.

This World Series will be remembered for the Astros breaking a drought to help a region recover from a hurricane. Now only seven franchises remain who never have won a World Series (Colorado, Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Texas and Washington) It will be remembered for the thrilling absurdity of Game 5—when runs came by the dozens, a baker’s dozen for Houston topping the standard dozen by Los Angeles. But it also should be remembered for how the Astros took the drama out of Game 7. A 33-year-old journeyman signed because the data said there was more there than meets the eye took them home, no Keuchel or Verlander required.

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Not long after Morton set down the final 11 Los Angeles hitters, he stood in the dugout holding son Charles, 4, in one arm and daughter Grace, 3, in the other, while his wife, Cindy, took care of the youngest, Benji, 11 months.

“I’ve had so much support from so many people along the way,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be here.”

For Morton and the Astros, it was a night many years in the making. Before the game, somebody wrote on the whiteboard inside the Houston clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, “Wednesday 11/1. Today is the day!” The message remained there as they filled the room with beer, champagne, music, cigar smoke, the championship trophy and the sweet shouts and bellows of first-time winners. They had withstood the applied load on them, not just in Game 7 but also over the past two months. Bound to a community by the best and worst of times, the Astros found strength in numbers.

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