HOUSTON – The strangest thing about Charlie Morton breaking his leg in Game 1 was that the Braves didn’t see it as strange. Indeed, it’s the story of their season. Ronald Acuna tore his ACL trying to catch a ball at the fence. Huascar Ynoa smacked a bench and broke his hand. Both catchers on their 26-man roster went on the injured list the same day. Mike Soroka re-tore his Achilles walking into the clubhouse.
And yet: They’re in the World Series.
Also: They’re leading the World Series.
Morton’s injury was weird. He took a hard-hit ball – so hard that it deflected all the way to Freddie Freeman at first base, which is where you’d want a deflection to go – by Yuli Gurriel in the second inning here Tuesday night. In the immediate aftermatch, there was no great fuss made by anyone. Morton declared himself fit. He resumed pitching. He struck out Chas McCormick. He induced Martin Maldonado to line out to Freeman. End of inning.
True confession: Morton’s reaction – or non-reaction – to being hit with a batted ball led this correspondent to place the moment under “file and forget.” It wasn’t until he threw another curveball that Jose Altuve could only admire for Strike 3 – the same had happened in the first – when the third inning began that the warning flag flew, at least to these aging eyes.
Morton’s landing after delivering the curve to Altuve required extra steps for him to stay standing. (He hadn’t stuck the landing, as they say in gymnastics.) Morton isn’t exactly stoic when pitching – in close-ups, you can see his eyes darting and almost feel him thinking – but here his face bore the look of a man who’d … well, who’d just broken his leg.
It wasn’t until much later – a half-hour after a game that required four hours and six minutes to play – that we media folks began to get clarification, although much remained unclear. According to Braves manager Brian Snitker, Morton had undergone an X-ray between the second and third innings. It showed no break. Morton did some throwing in the tunnel. He told Snitker he felt better throwing than running.
Said catcher Travis d’Arnaud: “He was walking a little funny, but I didn’t think he had a broken leg. I thought he’d just taken a line drive off his leg. To go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg blows my mind.”
It was only after retiring Altuve that Morton appeared to yield to the inevitable. He walked, not steadily, to the dugout. He underwent a second X-ray. This revealed the break. D’Arnaud said he believed Morton held out so long because he was trying to give A.J. Minter, the reliever who would follow Morton and work 2-2/3 splendid innings, extra time to ready himself. “He sacrificed himself,” d’Arnaud said.
A reporter asked if d’Arnaud had heard of a pitcher throwing 16 pitches after breaking his leg. “I wouldn’t think it was possible,” d’Arnaud said.
What was the old record, someone asked – one pitch? “Maybe one pitch,” d’Arnaud said. “And it probably went to the backstop. That’s pretty incredible. It’s incredible he even thought of going out there.”
And maybe Travis d’Arnaud – who’s so well-spoken that he chided himself after one response by saying, “I’m not sure that was good English” – just handed us the name for the 2021 Atlanta Braves. The Incredibles.
They couldn’t get above .500. They stayed in the National League East race only because it was the National League East, where nobody ever got up to speed. They lost an entire outfield. They added an entire outfield at the trade deadline. They won their division by 6-1/2 games. They beat Milwaukee in four games. They beat the Dodgers in six. They lead the World Series 1-nil.
Joc Pederson, who was a Cub for the first half of the season, hit two homers against the Brewers and sparked a run on second-hand pearl sales. Face-of-the-franchise Freeman closed out the Brewers with a massive home run. Eddie Rosario, for whom Snitker pinch-hit Orlando Arcia in Game 1 in Milwaukee, destroyed the Dodgers with one of the greatest displays in playoff annals. (He had two more hits Tuesday night. And he threw out Gurriel at second base.)
Will Smith, the archangel of angst, has worked eight postseason innings. He has allowed three hits, three walks and no runs. He has four saves and two wins in October. And he has been the Braves’ second-best reliever. Tyler Matzek has turned what was until recently a failed career into the stuff of legends. Minter has been likewise fabulous.
Every championship team needs a hero. The Braves have a roster full of them. We haven’t mentioned Austin Riley’s RBIs or Ozzie Albies’ dashing excellence or Dansby Swanson’s glovework. We haven’t mentioned Snitker’s tactical nous, which reached its apex when he pinch-hit for Ian Anderson with Ehire Adrianza after four innings of Game 6 against the Dodgers. With Adrianza on second after a double, Rosario hoisted the home run that lifted the Braves to the World Series.
Which began with Jorge Soler, who missed the NLCS after testing positive for COVID-19, hitting a leadoff homer. It was the first time in Series history – which dates to 1903 – that the first swing of a Fall Classic generated a home run. Now Morton strikes out the great Altuve on one good fibula. Then he leaves. The bullpen does the rest. These are the Braves. This is what they do.
This is historic stuff. This is incredible stuff. These are The Incredibles.