The Tampa Bay Rays are moving on to the ALDS. Wednesday night in Oakland, to beat the Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game (TB 5, OAK 1). Tampa Bay advances to take on the Astros while the A's are spending the rest of the year home. It is Oakland's third Wild Card Game loss in the past six years (2014, 2018, 2019).
The Rays received five innings of one (unearned) run ball from starter and staff ace Charlie Morton on Wednesday, though it was hardly his best outing. Morton had eight runners reach base in five innings -- nine when you include a runner who reached on an error -- and he didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning. The A's pushed his pitch count near 100 in those five innings.
Oakland loaded the bases in the first inning, but Jurickson Profar flew out to right to end the threat. Singles in the second and fifth were followed by double-play grounders. Seth Brown and Marcus Semien grounded out with two runners on base in the fourth. The A's went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position against Morton.
It was clear right away that Morton was not razor sharp. He had plenty of giddy up on his fastball -- Morton's heater averaged 95.8 mph in the Wild Card Game, well above his 94.7 mph season average -- but the curveball was not cooperating. Morton kept yanking his curve to his gloveside. Look at his curveball locations:
Morton couldn't throw his curveball for strikes consistently and many of those curves were noncompetitive. They were easy takes out of the strike zone. That elevated his pitch count -- 10 of the 22 batters he faced he saw at least five pitches -- and led to Morton relying almost exclusively on his fastball. The A's had no reason to respect the curveball.
"The curveball was a struggle to get in there and locate tonight. I was yanking it," Morton said in an interview during the ESPN broadcast. "It's one of those things you make an adjustment to your mentality too ... It's not just about hitting certain points in your delivery, but also controlling that emotion. Fortunately I was able to throw strikes with my heater."
The heater was indeed good. Morton was over the plate and mostly down in the zone with both his two-seamer and four-seamer, and the A's managed to hit only three fastballs out of the infield. The exit velocity on those three balls to the outfield: 84.2 mph, 87.1 mph, and 96.2 mph. One well-struck, the others not particularly squared up.
"We established the heater tonight. Did a good job, but really it was a battle. Those guys are good," Morton said during an interview with 953 WDAE. "To be where we are right now, we had to play a pretty good ball game both sides of the ball"
Three of Morton's four strikeouts came on his fastball -- the other came on a check swing against a curveball way out of the zone -- and all three of those fastball strikeouts came with men on base. Morton throwing a 3-2 fastball by Matt Olson with two men on base in the first inning was a huge moment early in the game that shouldn't be overlooked (0:24 in this video):
"When the first inning ended, I kind of said to myself, we were fortunate to have Charlie Morton on the mound," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We get the 1-0 lead. A young pitcher in that situation, that environment, you just wonder how he's going to be able to handle that. But Charlie, been there, done that, his veteran, his experience, I think allowed that. And I would still say, I don't think Charlie was at his best today, but he certainly made his best pitches when they counted the most."
At 97.8 mph, that was not only the fastest pitch Morton threw Wednesday night, it was tied for the fastest pitch he threw all season. The curveball wasn't be working, but the fastball sure was, and Morton was able to navigate five innings and limit the damage against a homer-happy lineup with one pitch working. That's not easy, but he made it work, and the Rays are going to the ALDS.
"We are fortunate that Charlie has the 'been there done that' experience of so many levels," Cash said prior to the AL Wild Card Game, and that applies to more than his postseason experience. Morton is an elite pitcher who knows how to adjust and gets outs on days he doesn't have best stuff, and he did exactly that Wednesday.