Nothing new here: Braves lose their No. 1 starter and still carry on

Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton reacts during the third inning against the Houston Astros in game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday October 26, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton reacts during the third inning against the Houston Astros in game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday October 26, 2021, in Houston, Tx. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

HOUSTON – Tuesday was the Braves’ first World Series victory since 1996, the night when they snapped an eight-game Fall Classic losing streak. An occasion of great glee by any measure. But these are the 2021 Braves, when so many good tidings come wrapped in an injury report.

The Team Resilient theme continued to the very last week of the season, with a smashing 6-2 Game 1 victory over the Houston Astros counterbalanced by another untimely injury, this to their No. 1 starter, Charlie Morton. Going just 2 1/3 innings and suffering a broken lower leg after being struck near the ankle by a line drive, Morton is lost for the balance of the series.

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Another of the untimeliest kind of mishaps, in line with Ronald Acuna’s torn knee and Mike Soroka’s freakish reinjury of his Achille’s tendon. And another example of how this team fills every void that comes along. Might as well try to punch a hole in a tub of water as to create one in this roster. Led by A.J. Minter’s 2 2/3 innings in emergency relief of Morton, the Braves bullpen gave up a couple runs but between four relievers still comfortably covered the remaining 6 2/3 innings that Tuesday required.

“We’ve been through this many times this year, losing key components to our club, really key components,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s not going to be an excuse or anything else we’re going to continue to go out and try to win games.”

Morton didn’t last long, his 2 1/3 innings tied for the shortest of his 16 career postseason starts. But he certainly packed a lot into his 44 pitches, an outing that began with his offense giving him a five-run lead by the bottom of the third and ended with him getting his last three outs on a severely injured leg.

“A gamer, that’s the one word I would describe it as,” outfielder Adam Duvall said.

The most heroic version of this night will have Morton getting three more outs after Yuli Gurriel broke the pitcher’s ankle with a line shot to the leg to lead off the Astros’ second. But Snitker said the team trainer took a quick X-ray of the leg when Morton came in at the bottom of the second and no break was evident. The ankle had been “stressed,” as Snitker put it by the Gurriel’s hard shot, leading to the break upon delivering his last pitch in the following inning, a strikeout of Jose Altuve, during which Morton stumbled on his follow-through, began rubbing the ankle and proclaimed he could go no farther.

“After (the second inning), he said, ‘That one got me good,’” said his catcher, Travis d’Arnaud. “I didn’t think it was broken, that he had just taken a line drive off of his leg. To go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg blows my mind.”

Morton was returning to a mound he occupied for the 2017 and ‘18 seasons, during which time he won a World Series Game 7 for the Astros and earned everlasting affection here. Even returning as the pitcher set to deny Houston’s Series claim this time, Morton got a polite ovation to start the game.

His first inning back was tumultuous but ultimately harmless. His control wavered and he required 26 pitches to get out of the first, after the Astros had loaded the bases on a single and a pair of walks. But he escaped that predicament when Kyle Tucker hit into an inning-ending ground-out.

Gurriel’s liner in the second, measured at 102.4 mph off the bat, ricocheted off Morton’s ankle toward first. Obviously stung, he still quickly recovered, trotting toward first to cover even as first-baseman Freddie Freeman gathered the ball and made the put-out.

Showing hardly any outward effects of the injury at the time, Morton went directly back to the mound and went back to work. Despite an injury to his back leg, his drive leg, Morton threw some of his most effective pitches of the night.

He struck out Chas McCormick and got Martin Maldonado on a line-out to first to end the inning.

“He wanted to keep going,” Snitker said of Morton’s demeanor between innings. “He was down in the tunnel; he was throwing the ball against the wall. He said it kind of hurts more when I run, I feel good when I throw. Then obviously it didn’t.

“That’s Charlie. He wants to be on this stage, God bless him. I hate it for him. Really hate it for him.”

There is a long list of pitchers with two perfectly good legs unable to do to Altuve what Morton then did with one. He struck him out with a sequence that included a 97-mph fastball and a devastating, finishing curveball. But on that last pitch, Morton’s leg surrendered.

Dipping again into their reserves, the Braves will look to replace Morton on the roster. Although replacing him in the clubhouse may be more difficult. “It’s tough losing Charlie, the person he is in the clubhouse, the mentor he is in the clubhouse. Especially this time of year, it’s very valuable. For us to lose him in Game 1 is a dagger,” d’Arnaud said. One of several that have pin-cushioned the Braves this season but have not seriously damaged them.

The Braves had planned to go with a bullpen game in Game 4 of this series and bring back Morton for a Game 5 start. Now the pieces must be again rearranged. “They’re talking about that right now as we speak,” Snitker said postgame of the Braves contingency plan.

“It’s like the other day when (Jorge) Soler came in and was scratched from the lineup two hours before the game (after testing positive for COVID),” Snitker said. I told (GM Alex Anthopoulos), don’t worry, these guys are going to keep going, keep fighting, keep battling.”

One contingency that’s still in play is a Braves sweep, eliminating the need for pitchers of any kind in Game 5. That would be the ultimate finish to this team’s theme of playing through pain.