Charlie Morton gives Braves enough before Freddie Freeman wins it

10/12/21 - Atlanta - Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) is pulled in the fourth inning of the  Major League Baseball playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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10/12/21 - Atlanta - Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) is pulled in the fourth inning of the Major League Baseball playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

People who study the numbers closely don’t have a consensus on whether it’s a good idea to use starting pitchers on short rest in the playoffs. If there were a clear pattern, that big picture wouldn’t necessarily tell you much about individuals. Braves manager Brian Snitker’s decision to start Morton in Game 4 of the National League Division Series was based on what he knows about his guy.

Morton has been the most effective pitcher on his staff. He has the most postseason experience among Braves starters and has a strong track record in October. The Braves had a chance to close out the Brewers on Tuesday at Truist Park, so Snitker took a chance by sending Morton to the mound to begin Game 4.

Pitching a day earlier than usual, Morton gave the Braves enough to keep them in the game until Freddie Freeman won it with a two-out homer in the eighth inning. The 5-4 victory sent the Braves back to the NL Championship Series to face the Giants or Dodgers. It’s possible they’d be going to Milwaukee for a decisive Game 5 if Morton hadn’t come through with an solid outing in tough circumstances.

Said Snitker: “I told (Morton), ‘I’m not putting any expectations on you. We will go inning to inning.’”

Morton was charged with two runs in 3 1/3 innings and had five strikeouts against one walk. The Brewers took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. The Braves came back to tie the game on Eddie Rosario’s two-run single in the bottom of the fourth. Morton’s outing ended up being a wash on the scoreboard.

The Braves again needed all the pitching they could get. Runs were scarce during this series and they were missing Jorge Soler for Game 4 after he tested positive for COVID-19. They had 11 hits but left 10 runners on base. The Braves were 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

The Braves put the leadoff hitters on base in the first and second innings but couldn’t bring them home. Freeman’s homer gave them their first lead. Will Smith preserved the victory after giving up a leadoff single in the ninth. The Braves finished strong after Morton gave them a good start.

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Headed to the NLCS: The Braves celebrate on the turf of Truist Park Tuesday after their 5-4 victory over the Brewers. The win secured the National League Divisional Series matchup for the Braves, and now they will advance to the National League Championship Series. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Headed to the NLCS: The Braves celebrate on the turf of Truist Park Tuesday after their 5-4 victory over the Brewers. The win secured the National League Divisional Series matchup for the Braves, and now they will advance to the National League Championship Series. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Headed to the NLCS: The Braves celebrate on the turf of Truist Park Tuesday after their 5-4 victory over the Brewers. The win secured the National League Divisional Series matchup for the Braves, and now they will advance to the National League Championship Series. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The after-the-fact analysis is that Snitker was right to try to squeeze some innings out of Morton. There was some risk in the move, though. Both conventional baseball wisdom and statistical analysis agree that four days between starts is ideal. But this wasn’t a normal circumstance.

Going back to Milwaukee would mean facing Brewers ace Corbin Burnes again. He held the Braves scoreless with two hits during Milwaukee’s 2-1 victory in Game 1. Snitker decided Morton was the guy who gave the Braves the best chance of ending the series early.

The Braves still had good young lefty Max Fried available for Game 5, if needed. Freeman made sure Fried can be saved for the NLCS.

“We had to come out on top today,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “For Charlie to go on short rest is very big. That’s huge for the younger guys to see it’s playoff time and when the team needs you you’ve got to be there and just play.”

It’s not uncommon for starting pitchers to pitch on three days’ rest in the playoffs. Using the Baseball Reference database, I narrowed it down to pitchers who made consecutive starts on three days’ rest in the postseason. i threw out games in which the plan was for them to go short in the first start. That left 108 games that fit the criteria

The pitchers in those games combined to post a 4.52 ERA in the short-rest starts with an average outing of five innings. The most recent examples came Tuesday in Game 4 of an American League Division Series. The Rays sent out lefty Shane McClanahan four days after he pitched five scoreless innings (82 pitches) in Game 1. He surrendered five runs in the third inning of Game 4 before getting pulled.

Morton did much better than that. He didn’t meet the average standard for playoff pitchers making a second start on short rest. No surprise when you look at the list of short-rest starters and see several Cy Young Award winners and Hall of Fame pitchers. All that matters is that Morton was good enough to give the Braves a chance to win the NLDS in four games.

Morton gave up a leadoff single to Avisail Garcia in the fourth inning. He walked Luis Urias with one out before Omar Narvaez scored Garcia with a single. That broke Milwaukee’s 0-for-20 streak with runners in scoring position. Snitker said he’d already decided to replace Morton no matter what happened with Narvaez.

“After the third inning we talked to him, and he’s like ‘I’m good.,” Snitker said. “Then he went out and all of a sudden I think he had maxed out.”

Jesse Chavez replaced Morton and surrendered a run-scoring single to No. 8 hitter Lorenzo Cain. Brewers manager Craig Counsell decided to let starting pitcher Eric Lauer hit. It was a risky choice considering Milwaukee had scored two runs in the first three games of the series. Lauer moved the base runners with a sacrifice bunt before Chavez struck out Willy Adames to end the inning.

After Rosario’s hit tied the score in the bottom of the fourth, Brewers slugger Rowdy Tellez belted Huascar Ynoa’s fastball down the middle over the center-field wall in the fifth. Tellez’s two-run homer was the difference in Milwaukee’s Game 1 victory. He wouldn’t be the hero this time. The Braves scored two runs in the bottom of the fifth against Brewers reliever Aaron Ashby.

The Braves didn’t score again until Freeman sent elite closer Josh Hader’s first pitch to him out of the park in left-center. Credit Freeman for the big hit. Tip your hat to Morton keeping the Brewers down for as long as he could on short rest.

“It’s pretty amazing what he did,” Freeman said.

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