Friends, we’ve seen some baaaad Charlie Morton starts, but I don’t know if we’ve ever seen anything as grim as this. Though the bats and gloves had their work cut out for them, they didn’t disappoint, as a big offensive effort gave the Braves a solid lead and an eventual 8-4 win in the series opener in St. Louis.
The offense wasted little time, even before it was known that Morton was going to struggle. Ronald Acuña Jr. started the game by reaching on a bouncer to third. He was then thrown out trying to steal, in the first of many unfortunate-but-not-ultimately-problematic occurrences in this game. After the caught stealing, Cardinals starter Jake Woodford got Matt Olson rung up on... this:
While that was a pretty uninspiring few minutes for the road team, Austin Riley made everyone smile again by absolutely destroying a baseball for his first dinger of the year:
Save some for the rest of the season, big guy!
Right after Riley’s mega-blast, Travis d’Arnaud followed with a barreled ball of his own... but it only went 378 feet and was caught for the third out.
And then the Morton struggles began. I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what was ailing the veteran right-hander tonight, but it was clear that he was just missing, horribly, with almost every pitch. We’re not talking spiked curveballs plonking the feet of the lefty batters, we’re talking fastballs spurting out armside like an exaggerated, B-movie version of Julio Teheran’s worst starts. The curve was okay, but a man can’t live on curves alone.
Up 1-0, Morton planted two grooved fastballs that resulted on runners at the corners with one out. Nolan Arenado followed by chasing a 1-0 curveball off the plate and hitting it weakly to second for an RBI forceout. Willson Contreras then did Morton a favor by smushing a 3-1 curve over the plate into the ground to short to end the inning.
In the second, then, the bats did a lot of work to give Morton the breathing room he’d ultimately need. Michael Harris II started the inning by rolling a way-off-the-plate Woodford curve through the left side, like a much more handsome Jeff McNeil. Ozzie Albies followed by unloading on a Woodford fastball and crushing it over the fence in right, giving the Braves a 3-1 lead.
Would Woodford feel more pain? Yes, he
Wood would. After Marcell Ozuna experienced possibly the dumbest strikeout of the season so far (look it up), Eddie Rosario singled, and Orlando Arcia wafted a ground-rule double by blooping a ball into the left-field corner. That brought up Acuña, who, just, good lord, guys:
That was it for the Braves offensively for a while, but it was enough. Still, Morton did not make this an easy cruise to the finish line. After being handed that lead, he issued a four-pitch walk, missing horrendously with every pitch. He then proceeded to just stop using his fastball, which didn’t not work, but required Arcia to make a couple of nifty plays at short to get out of the inning, including a diving/falling snare of a 108 mph Jordan Walker liner. Morton got his only strikeout of the night to start the third, but then issued a four-pitch, two-out walk to Paul Goldschmidt and gave up a single afterwards. Contreras followed by whacking a hanging curve out to right, but it wasn’t all that well hit and landed in Acuña’s glove for the third out. He threw just six fastballs in the third.
The Braves wasted a scoring chance in the fourth when Riley’s hard-hit liner to center was caught with two outs and Acuña on second. Morton tried to switch to his sinker in the bottom of the inning, but ended up getting dinked — three straight singles, none hit hard, greeted him and made it a 6-2 game. An RBI groundout that was somehow hit on an elevated, hanging curve later made it 6-3. The inning ended with another scary but harmless flyout, this time off the bat of Alec Burleson to left, that went 346 feet.
Zack Thompson replaced Woodford with one out in the fifth, but the bats stayed dormant for a bit longer. Morton came out for the fifth to face the Goldschmidt-Arenado-Contreras sequence and got the first two outs on four pitches by way of two hard-hit grounders to Arcia, but then the resumption of his four-seamer resulted in back-to-back singles. He escaped the inning in terrifying fashion: Tyler O’Neill crushed a first-pitch hanging curve to center, but the dimensions of Busch Stadium let the ball settle harmlessly in Harris’ glove. In the bottom of the sixth, Morton was finally pulled after a one-out single. He somehow (with the help of defense and HR/FB not victimizing him) made it through 27 batters allowing just three runs despite a pathetic 1/2 K/BB ratio. There’s almost nowhere to go but up for Morton at this point, and fortunately, whatever issues he was working through tonight didn’t cost the Braves a game.
Nick Anderson came on after Morton exited, and collected two strikeouts to end the frame. He froze Brendan Donovan with an 0-2 fastball down the middle, and got Burleson to strike out by swinging and missing on three curveballs in the dirt out of five pitches — Burleson got himself out without ever seeing anything even remotely close to a strike.
The Braves tacked on a couple of runs against Jordan Hicks in the seventh. Acuña doubled and scored on an Olson single, and d’Arnaud later doubled to score Olson (not from first). Anderson gave up a run via Goldschmidt homer to start the bottom of the seventh, but breezed through the rest of the inning, including retiring Arenado on three pitches.
Collin McHugh came on for the eighth and wasn’t his usual bamboozling self, as he struggled with cutter command en route to a two-on situation. But, Burleson’s miserable night continued, as he was rung up on this sequence, which doesn’t really make me feel any better about what happened to Olson in the first:
After going down 1-2-3 to Packy “Peanuts” Naughton in the ninth, it was A.J. Minter time to end the game. And Minter did just that, despite a one-out single.
Acuña had a fun day at the ballpark, going 3-for-4 with his big homer, a double, a walk, and his lame caught stealing. Every other member of the lineup had a single hit except Ozuna, who instead walked twice. Nick Anderson got five outs, four via strikeout. The Cardinals outhit the Braves, 12-10, but neener neener they only hit one homer, so for tonight, justice was served and they lost.
The Braves will try to take the series behind Dylan Dodd tomorrow, who will be making his major league debut. Stay tuned.