ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Charlie Morton is the Rays’ last hope. It is why this frugal team spent all that money, for Tampa Bay anyway, on Morton, signing the free agent to a two-year, $30 million deal.
The Rays are down 2-0 to the Astros and facing elimination Monday at Tropicana Field. Morton is 3-0 in elimination games with a 0.64 ERA.
If he wins the Rays only get to play another day. They have to win three straight against the mighty Astros to advance to the ALCS.
Teams are 7-43 in best-of-five series when losing the first two games.
This marks the third time the Rays have fallen behind 2-0 in a postseason series and each time they won Game 3 but lost the series. In nine postseason appearances the Rays have never been swept.
The curveball-loving Morton will face Zack Greinke (18-5, 2.93). In the regular season Morton was 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA, but scouts say toward the end of the season he was not as sharp as he was earlier.
Morton has no doubts about how he will approach his former team, saying Sunday at Tropicana Field, “You play teams like the Astros, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Dodgers. There’s that mystique about them. You know that those teams are really good.
“For me, there’s really no mystery with the Astros. 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. I know what they’re made of.
“I’m just going to go out there and try to make pitches and challenge them.’’
Morton knows the Astros almost too well because he offered this comment on how difficult a challenge the Rays face.
“There’s a lot of fight in this team,’’ he said of the plucky Rays. “But [Monday] is going to be a challenge. The next couple days. We win tomorrow, next day’s going to be a challenge. Then, you know, you go back into Houston for a Game 5 situation. It’s just the kind of thing where I don’t even want to think about that stuff, to be honest with you.’’
The Astros reinvented Morton as a pitcher.
“When I got to Houston, it was like they had some ideas about my stuff,’’ Morton explained. “One, you need to throw your curveball a lot more. I was on board with that, because that was something that was suggested to me by the Phillies guys, Rick Kranitz and Bob McClure.
“They suggested trying to move my two-seam around a little bit to places where I hadn’t really tried it, in particular righties, and to limit my two-seam usage against lefties. Increase my four-seam usage.’’
It worked, but now it has to work against old friends in the superstar Astros lineup.