July 5, 2022

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Is Morton bouncing back? Righty takes big step with scoreless start

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ATLANTA — Charlie Morton has been around long enough to know one outing doesn’t cure all ills, especially when you’ve struggled as much as he has over the past few weeks. But the veteran right-hander seemed to take a big step in the right direction as he helped the Braves claim a 9-2 win over the Brewers on Sunday afternoon at Truist Park.  

If nothing else, this start may have been a much-needed mental boost for Morton as he attempts to prove to himself and others that at 38 years old he can bounce back from a fractured leg and continue to be a top-flight pitcher.

“I’ve accomplished pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in the game,” Morton said. “But here I am and I still love the challenge. I still feel the stress, the anxiety and desire to do well for my teammates.”

Morton allowed two hits, pitched around three walks and recorded five strikeouts over five scoreless innings. That’s a pedestrian line for a guy who has been one of the game’s top starting pitchers over the past few years. But it’s a sign of progress for a guy, who entered this series final with a 6.85 ERA through his first five starts of the season.  

“I think it was a definite step forward,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think he was really grinding through those five innings. I think positive steps forward are big. That was a very good team he was going up against. So, that was a very positive day.”

This was a positive week for the Braves, who took two of three from the National League Central-leading Brewers after splitting four road games against the NL East-leading Mets. Ronald Acuña Jr. swung the bat well in both series, and he highlighted this latest win by scoring from first on Matt Olson’s two-out pop fly to shallow left field in the second. Adam Duvall also halted his early troubles by supporting Morton with a third-inning homer, just his second of the year.

But the most influential recent development might have been Morton beginning to look like he did last year, when he started slow and then proved to be a legit frontline starter over the season’s final few months. The right-hander began to turn the tide with his perfect first inning against the Brewers. He had allowed multiple runs in the first inning of three of his past four starts.

Then, after a pair of walks helped the Brewers load the bases with one out in the second, Morton got another boost of confidence by striking out Lorenzo Cain and inducing Jace Peterson’s flyout.

“Today I saw some things from the hitters that made me feel like I’m not that far off, especially early [in the game],” Morton said.

As Morton struggled over the past couple weeks, a lot of focus was placed on the fact he wasn’t missing bats as frequently as he had in the past. Morton began to believe this may have been a product of opponents not chasing pitches out of the zone as frequently as they previously had.

The Brewers whiffed with 10 of the 43 swings taken during Morton’s 92-pitch effort. That’s higher than the whiff total the Cubs and Mets combined to tally against the hurler in what had been his two most recent starts. It’s also at least closer to the rates Morton was generating last year.

“I felt like he was more Charlie-esque,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Hopefully, that’s a really good sign of things to come from him.”

Morton began throwing off a mound just a few months after his right fibula was fractured in Game 1 of the World Series. He came to Spring Training optimistic about where he would be at the start of the season. And while there were no setbacks, the fact remained he was attempting to come back from a fracture at an advanced age while experiencing an accelerated Spring Training.

Now, Morton admits it may have taken him a little extra time to confidently drive through his delivery with his legs again. Maybe this, combined with the altered preparation schedule, influenced his recent struggles. And maybe this latest outing was a sign he is moving in the right direction.

Time will tell if Morton can turn things around like he did last year. But at least for this one day, the Braves were reminded of how much stronger they could be if this seasoned pitcher truly is back to being the elite hurler he was the last few years.

“We all know that what he’s capable of doing leads to good results more often than not,” Swanson said.

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