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Charlie Morton returns to Tampa Bay as baseball’s two top teams tangle

The Braves look to keep up their blistering pace against a Rays team that’s lost five in a row and is winless in July

Tampa Bay Rays v Atlanta Braves
Remember back in 2021 when Charlie Morton was A) super-good and B) faced his old team for the first time since departing? This is a photo from that game.
Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda/Getty Images

In December 2018, with his two-year deal with Houston expired, a resurgent Charlie Morton signed a two-year, $30 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, substantially increasing his own career earnings while becoming his new team’s most highly-paid player, by far. The move worked out for both sides, as Morton’s career renaissance took off in Tampa Bay, with a career-best 6.0 fWAR season in 2019. Fast forward a bit, skipping past an injury-hampered pandemic season, a second-best season ever with the Braves in 2021, and disappointing dropoff in 2022, and you have Morton, age 39, in the midst of a bounceback campaign, heading back to his prior stomping ground to kick off a weekend showdown.

Yes, the Braves and Rays are, at this time, the two best teams in MLB. At 58-28, the Braves have an 8.5-game lead in the division and have lost just five times since the start of June. The Rays are 57-33, with a four-game division lead of their own, but after an incredible start to their season, they’ve really hit a skid lately. Tampa Bay has lost five in a row for the first time all season, and are 6-11 in their last 17 games. They lost a series in Seattle and then were swept by the Phillies at home, and have won just one series since mid-June, while doing things like splitting a four-game set with the Royals. There’s no blatant smoking gun for the team’s recent struggles — everything’s just been kind of mediocre rather than bad in that span — and the losses are mostly just instances of something going wrong at the worst time. Still, they haven’t been playing like the team that just obliterated all comers with a homer barrage; that honor, of course, now belongs to the Braves.

So, Morton’s task tonight won’t be as daunting, on paper, as it would have been earlier in the year. That’s probably a good thing, though Morton has more than held his own this year, with a 80 ERA-, 88 FIP-, and 90 xFIP-. His outings sometimes feel more frustrating than they should because of what is now a double-digit walk rate and the fact that hitters often destroy his fastball, meaning that most PAs boil down to a troika of “will this guy swing at the curveball and strike out, take the curveball and walk, or will Morton throw a fastball that gets hit hard somewhere,” but the results and peripherals have been there despite the relative one-dimensionality of the pitching.

Facing off against Morton will be Tyler Glasnow, who kind of epitomizes the Rays’ rotation so far this year: quite good, but not around for the whole year. In Glasnow’s case, he missed nearly all of the first two months of the season with an oblique strain. Since his return, he’s made seven starts, and has a pretty bizarre line: 112 ERA-, 90 FIP-, 65 xFIP-... and an xERA that would be worse than 120ish on a minus basis. Basically, he’s got the walks and strikeouts part down pat, but has also allowed six homers in seven starts, and has had an insane barrel rate against him. Basically, Glasnow has faced 154 batters, of which 56 have struck out, 15 have walked, one has been hit by a pitch, and 15 have punched barrels. That’s close to a barrel every other inning. Anyway, all of these things will probably normalize to something far less absurd with time.

As it is, Glasnow is coming off two pretty impressive starts. He struck out 12 of the 19 Royals he faced on June 25 in what was one of the best starts of his career, and then followed that up by striking out 11 of 26 Mariners... though that latter start also featured him giving up a homer and three doubles in what ended up being an 8-3 loss (though Glasnow departed with the Rays trailing 3-2). The Braves went from a high-strikeout team to a low-strikeout team in June as they’ve been swinging so early in the count as to avoid punchouts, so this will be an interesting matchup in that regard.

Game Info

Atlanta Braves @ Tampa Bay Rays

Friday, July 7, 2023

6:40 pm EDT

Tropicana Field

St. Petersburg, FL

TV: Apple TV+

Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan

XM Radio: Online/Ch. 89

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