The Runner Sports

“Astros Have Charlie Morton, Don’t Need Quintana,” Said No One Ever. ‘Til Now

Charlie Morton is singlehandedly keeping top Houston prospects Kyle Tucker (#19) and Francis Martes (#15…both in Baseball America‘s Top 20) in Astros orange. Perhaps at this moment, Tucker and Martes are pitching in to send Morton flowers, steaks, or a big bag of rosin.

The Astros’ right-handed starter mystified opposing batters in all his Spring Training games…at the same time rumors were still swirling around the Astros (and Braves, now that Pittsburgh has dropped out) as the best place for White Sox lefty Jose Quintana to land.

Houston, in the offseason, when pundits and fans alike were screaming in unison that the Astros needed to shore up their rotation with Chris Sale and/or Archer, went out and got neither. Or Quintana.

Related: ChiSox’ Quintana Closer to Houston? Cards’ 2 Picks May Provide Astros With Flex

The Astros signed free agent Morton, 33, to a two-year deal in November, to the deafening cries of “Is that it?” as winter turned to spring. Morton pitched in four games for the Phillies in 2016, but a torn hamstring forced him to miss the rest of the season.

Houston has taken a chance on a pitcher with better-than-average stuff, knowing that none of his past injuries have had anything to do with his arm or shoulder. He just has to keep himself on the field.

Related: Minus Acquired Ace, Astros Hope For Lucky Draw From These 5

During baseball’s Winter Meetings in December, Chicago GM Rick Hahn asked the Astros for 2016 break-out starter Joe Musgrove, as well as Tucker and Martes in exchange for Quintana, a proposed trade that was quickly rejected by Astros brass, presumably after a hearty laugh.

Related: Uncovering the Real 2017 Astros: What the Other Previews Aren’t Telling You

Pouring It On

With a mid-90s fastball (occasionally hitting 98 mph), a slider in the upper 80s, and a curve in the low 80s, the 6’5″, 235-pound Morton out-dueled New York’s Noah Syndergaard in their game at the Mets’ First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, March 24.

“Thor” pitched 6 innings to Morton’s 4.1, struck out 5 to Morton’s 4, and didn’t walk any to Morton’s two free passes. But, the Mets’ long-haired righty yielded one run to the Astros, while Morton pitched scoreless ball.

Chalk one up for “Ground Chuck,” whose sinker induced 3 double plays in the game, which ended up an Astros’ 2-0 victory.

Morton stretched his spring record to 2-0, while Syndergaard dropped to 0-1, and watched his ERA rise to 2.63 in his total of 13.2 IP.

In his 17.1 spring innings, Morton salted away a 1.04 ERA, with 17 Ks, and overall, looks to be the shot in the arm for the Houston rotation none of the pundits could see coming…and it came without relinquishing a single blue chip prospect.

Video: Watch Morton throttle the Padres on 10 ground-outs and 7 Ks in 6 2/3 scoreless innings last April with the Phils

No Need to Target an Archer

In his first start of the season, Wednesday, April 5, Morton held his own against tough Seattle lefty James Paxton, but one mistake to Mariners’ SS Jean Segura put him in a 2-0 hole. George Springer’s 2-run bases loaded double in the 7th got Morton off the hook. Counting last season, that was Springer’s 5th straight extra-base hit with the bases loaded. Springer now has the longest consecutive game streak in MLB, with 194, through Sunday’s (April 9) game.

Springer was the ultimate hero, when, with two outs and two on, he sent the fans home delirious in the bottom of the 13th, lofting a 3-2 pitch just into the Crawford boxes in left. Houston logged its 3rd straight win, 5-3. The Astros, now (following Wednesday’s game), have won 12 of their last 16 meetings with the M’s, dating back to last season.

Video: Springer’s walk-off 3-run homer seals Wednesday’s win

Morton threw 6 innings, and put nearly 2/3 of his darts over the plate (90 pitches, 59 strikes). He gave up 5 hits and 2 walks, while whiffing 4, successfully pounding left-handed hitters on a regular basis. His one-game WHIP: 1.17.

By comparison, Chris Archer gave up 7 hits in 7  innings in his first start, April 2, walking one and striking out 5. He, too, yielded 2 earned runs. Archer’s one-game WHIP: 1.14. Looks like a push to me.

Career Best: On April 28, Morton set a career high in strikeouts, with 12, in 7 innings pitched against the Oakland A’s in Houston. For Oakland, they can be thankful that Khris Davis suited up, as he single-handedly produced the A’s only runs on 2 homers, in the Astros’ 9-4 win. That allowed Morton to even his season record to 2-2, while dinging his ERA to 4.50. He gave up 5  hits, while walking none.

Rotation News

One starter won’t be ready for the regular season: Collin McHugh, who threw 41 pitches in 3 innings in a minor league game Wednesday, March 29. He’s working his way back from a “dead arm” issue, and was put on the DL to start the season. He started the season opener for Triple-A Fresno, Thursday, April 6, in the first of what was supposed to be two or three rehab starts.

Related: Astros 2.0? Fresno Grizzlies’ Lineup Could Be Houston’s In 2018

McHugh left with tightness in his biceps and elbow after the first inning, before being relieved. He gave up three runs on three hits, with a walk in a 27-pitch first inning.

April 8, the Astros announced that McHugh will be shut down for six weeks, putting him on the shelf till around the end of May, when he’ll be reevaluated. He’s been diagnosed with a posterior impingement of the right elbow, and will avoid surgery. An MRI revealed no further damage.

 Opening Week Rotation with Opposing Pitchers

April 3-6 at Minute Maid Park vs. Mariners:

Monday, April 3: Dallas Keuchel (9-12, 4.55 ERA in 2016) vs. RHP Felix Hernandez (11-8, 3.82); Astros won, 3-0.

Related: Barrage Sail: Astros Kick Off 2017 with King Felix Spanking

Tuesday, April 4: Lance McCullers, Jr. (6-5, 3.22) vs. RHP Hisashi Owikuma (16-12, 4.12); Astros won, 2-1.

Wednesday, April 5: Charlie Morton (1-1, 4.15) vs. LHP James Paxton (6-7, 3.79); Astros won, 5-3 in 13 innings. The Astros haven’t been 3-0 since 2001.

Thursday, April 6: Joe Musgrove (4-4, 4.06) vs. LHP Drew Smyly (7-12, 4.88) Seattle won, 4-2.

April 7-9 at Minute Maid Park vs. Kansas City Royals:

Friday, April 7: Mike Fiers (11-8, 4.48) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (0-0, 2.25) Royals won, 5-1.

Saturday, April 8: Keuchel vs. LHP Danny Duffy (12-3, 3.51) KC prevailed, 7-3.

Sunday, April 9: McCullers vs. RHP Nathan Karns (6-2, 5.15) Astros squeaked out a 5-4 win in 12.

Monday, April 10: Starting for the Astros in Seattle’s home opener, Morton struck out 4 of his first 6 batters, and struck out the side in the 2nd. A walk and 2 singles in the 4th loaded the bases; Morton got out of it with nobody scoring, striking out two, and inducing a fly out.

The Mariners finally got to Morton in the 5th, giving up the only 3 runs the M’s would need, eventually outlasting Houston, 6-0. Overall, Morton walked two, gave up 7 hits, and struck out six.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Here I am, meeting with Nolan Ryan at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, TX. One of us is trying to convince the other to take his 90 mph fastball, and get back into the game.

Needless to say, I've decided to spend my golden years, instead, crooning Sinatra at nursing homes, while reflecting on a life well-lived in the classroom, spinning rock'n'roll in '70s radio stations, and peddling wax in the record biz.

I'm a Houston native, having attended 'Stro games in Colt Stadium, the beloved Astrodome, and Minute Maid.

Join me at TRS for full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and surprises!
Brad Kyle