Braves pitcher Charlie Morton delivers in return to game action

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Charlie Morton stood on the mound at Charlotte Sports Park, five months and a day removed from fracturing his right fibula in the World Series. He dazzled into the fifth inning against the Rays, looking fully healthy and ready for the season. He breezed through his penultimate spring outing.

Sunday had the makings of a feel-good return story for a veteran pitcher who suffered a scary injury months ago. Instead, Morton shrugged it off, perhaps a sign of his belief in himself.

“Yeah,” Morton said to begin answering a question about whether he thought he would be at this point a few months ago.

You shouldn’t be surprised by this. This is the same guy who fractured his fibula and still got another three outs before departing the game. It makes perfect sense that he wouldn’t play up a spring training start, even if he dominated in his first time pitching in front of fans since the injury.

“I feel like my stuff is pretty good. It's just location, consistency, my release, my delivery. That can always get better, but I think right now I'm just trying to build up that endurance."

- Braves pitcher Charlie Morton

Morton on Sunday threw 4 ⅔ hitless innings. He struck out five Rays. He walked one and hit another. He felt proud that he got five up-downs. In the bottom of the third, he tested the leg, and passed, when he fielded a grounder and got the out at first.

“I feel like my stuff is pretty good,” Morton said. “It’s just location, consistency, my release, my delivery. That can always get better, but I think right now I’m just trying to build up that endurance.”

Added Braves manager Brian Snitker after his club’s 4-1 loss to the Rays: “He blows me away, every time he pitches, (with) the way he can still throw.”

Morton treated Sunday’s outing as if it were business as usual. It may have been his spring debut in front of fans, but he threw a handful of live batting practice sessions before camp opened, then one more in North Port before pitching in a minor-league game.

In his latest start, the 38-year-old Morton didn’t look like someone who fractured his fibula five months ago. He might be surprising fans, but he’s not surprising himself.

“I think there probably was a time when I was like, ‘Man, that’s a lot better than I thought I was going to be,’” Morton said. “But at this point, I understand myself, I understand my arm and my stuff.”

The back end of the rotation

Snitker said right-handers Kyle Wright and Huascar Ynoa are “probably” the front-runners for the two open starting rotation spots.

This could change, as lefties Tucker Davidson and Kyle Muller are also competing for the spots. And there could be roles for more pitchers than we think considering the Braves could get creative with their rotation when they open the season with 14 games in 14 days before their first off day.

Wright debuted for the Braves in 2018 and has since posted a 6.56 ERA over 21 games (14 starts). Ynoa logged a 4.05 ERA over 18 games (17 starts) last year.

Catcher William Contreras … in right field?

If you looked closely at the Braves’ lineup for Sunday, you probably wondered why catcher William Contreras was in right field.

Well, he performed well there. The first inning ended with a flyout to Contreras, who also caught a line drive right at him to end the second inning. Snitker said Contreras could play some right field if he’s in the big leagues and they need it.

“He’s an athletic kid,” Snitker said. “If he hits, you look for places where a guy can help you, with his power and potential. And he’s athletic. I think we could probably put him at third or second, too, and he’d be fine.”

Contreras hasn’t played in the outfield in his young major-league career that began in 2020.

Max Fried and Charlie Morton are in good spots

Either Max Fried or Morton will start on opening day for the Braves. Having two options is a good problem, especially when both arms are in good spots.

Fried on Sunday went five innings – really 4 ⅔ because the Braves rolled the fourth frame – in a simulated game at CoolToday Park. Then Morton followed with his performance in Port Charlotte.

“For where we’re at now and how we’ve ramped this thing up, that’s about as good as you can get there,” Snitker said of both pitchers. “Him and Max both are about as good as we can do now.”

On Sunday, Fried and Morton both said they didn’t care much about pitching on opening day.