ATLANTA — As the summer reaches a fever pitch in Atlanta, all eyes will focus on the All-Stars in Braves uniforms who have been the main architects of the team’s MLB-best 40-15 record since June 1. But there’s another player who has spent the last couple of months rounding into shape who is deserving of attention, too.
Veteran starter Charlie Morton turned in another gem on Wednesday afternoon, his 6 2/3 scoreless innings in a 3-1 loss to the Phillies at Truist Park dropping his season ERA to 4.09 — a far cry from when it stood at 5.67 following his 12th start of the year on June 11. In the weeks since he gave up four earned runs for a fourth consecutive outing, Morton has held opponents to 15 earned runs in 56 1/3 innings. His 2.40 ERA since June 17 was better than all but seven other qualified starters entering the slate of Wednesday’s night games.
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Despite the dominance that has been apparent in nearly all of his boxscores since mid-June, Morton isn’t satisfied. He believes there is another hill to crest before he reaches his peak performance level. He leaned on his previous start against the Phillies as proof. A week ago, Morton was cruising in Philadelphia. He had faced just two batters more than the minimum through four innings. He hadn’t let anyone advance beyond first base. Fifty-three pitches had been enough to collect 12 outs.
Then he walked rookie Bryson Stott on five pitches. Morton tried to pick him off but his throw hit the dirt and trickled into foul territory, allowing Stott to reach third on the error. Suddenly Morton found himself up against Alec Bohm, one of baseball’s hottest hitters in July, with a runner on third base. Bohm spoiled the 0-and-1 changeup Morton threw him up-and-in and shot it to left field. Stott scored. One pitch later, Morton induced a routine ground-ball that almost certainly would have gotten him two outs. Robinson Canó, though, booted the ball.
The inning snowballed. Odúbel Herrera reached and stole two bases. Rhys Hoskins swiped one, too. Five runs crossed the plate. By the time Morton returned to the visiting dugout, his pitch count had climbed to 84.
An eight-strikeout, three-hit outing against the Phillies on Wednesday did only so much to alleviate Morton’s vexation over his outing last week. Asked what felt different about the two starts, Morton just rehashed how the Phillies “grinded against me … and knocked me out of the game.”
“Did I do something a little extra? I mean, I don’t know,” Morton said. “I have regrets about that game because I don’t think it had to go that badly. … When I look back at that game, there’s just these small things that built up that allowed them to just score those runs. And some of those things were definitely in my control.”
Morton said he won’t feel like he has hit his stride until he assembles a stretch of games that don’t cause him regret.
For all his melancholy, Morton has been effective. During the last 6 1/2 weeks, the .179 batting average against Morton is the lowest among all Braves starters. His ERA in that span is second only to All-Star ace Max Fried. The hard-hit rate he has allowed also ranks only behind Fried. A few too many balls have gotten away from Morton, contributing to a 3.48 FIP entering Wednesday’s start, but he has still been a productive member of the rotation.
If Morton arrives at his definition of “feeling good,” the Braves’ rotation could become an even stronger force to reckon with.
“He’s very important (to the Braves’ chances),” catcher William Contreras said in Spanish after Wednesday’s game. “We need him. We need outings like this one all the way to the end. That will help us get to the playoffs.”
Odorizzi lengthens rotation
Trading lefty Will Smith to Houston in exchange for veteran starter Jake Odorizzi has the potential to be another in a line of low-key trades by Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos that ultimately has a significant impact down the stretch drive and into the postseason.
Instead of resorting to bullpen games that can deplete a pitching staff, especially now when it’s not as easy as it used to be to call up a fresh arm — option periods and injured-list stints were increased from a minimum of 10 days to 15 for pitchers — the Braves have an experienced starter to fill the role in situations like they’ll face Saturday, when Odorizzi will start one of the doubleheader games against the Mets. That allows the Braves to avoid calling up a minor leaguer or using a reliever as an opener.
And if Ian Anderson, who had a 6.27 ERA in a 10-start stretch before his best start of the season Sunday against Arizona, were to struggle more in the heat of a playoff race, the Braves would have a replacement option if it came to that. But the Braves are extremely reluctant to drop Anderson from the rotation, given his previous accomplishments and particularly his postseason performances.
While plenty outside the organization have speculated that rookie sensation Spencer Strider might be moved to the bullpen late in the season to control his innings — he has 87, and in two more starts will likely surpass his career-high of 96 1/3 innings in his first pro season in 2021 — the Braves are adamant about not having a specific innings limit for Strider, who has shown no sign of fatigue. To the contrary, he had career-highs of 13 strikeouts and 6 2/3 innings Tuesday against Philadelphia.
But while Odorizzi replacing Strider in the rotation seems unlikely, the Braves are strongly considering using a six-man rotation at least for the rest of a stretch of 23 games in 23 days. They are two games into that stretch now, which runs through Aug. 24 and includes another doubleheader Aug. 13 at Miami on the next-to-last day of the three-city, 11-game trip that begins Thursday in New York. Going with six starters would give everyone in the rotation extra rest at a time when most starting can benefit from it, especially those on pace to easily set career-highs in innings.
“I’m just going to try to be me,” said Odorizzi, who had a 3.75 ERA in 12 starts for Houston, with 47 strikeouts and 16 walks in 60 innings, and has a fresher arm than most after missing nearly seven weeks this summer with an ankle injury. “I think that’s what makes a rotation good, is the uniqueness of the pitchers. Having a really good rotation is definitely a benefit, having some length to it is a benefit. Come October, it breeds good runs, having that depth in the pitching staff.
“I’m glad everybody’s throwing great; it’s great to be in a rotation like that. Hopefully everyone just continues following suit, because pitching is one of those things that can be pretty contagious.”
Arcia shining with the bat, too
The Braves didn’t need Ozzie Albies’ replacement to hit like the star from Curaçao. They simply wanted someone who could match his defense. They’ve gotten that from Orlando Arcia, the versatile infielder they acquired from the Brewers in an early 2021 trade. He has saved four outs above average at second base, one less than Albies in about 100 fewer chances.
Arcia showed off his glove again Wednesday, his instincts enabling him to make a quick turn on a potential double play ball and his strong arm throwing a dart across the infield into the outstretched glove of Matt Olson. Even though the Phillies’ athletic catcher, J.T. Realmuto, beat the throw and the original safe call was overturned, Arcia’s play stood out.
Of late, Arcia’s bat has shined, too.
He smashed a hanging slider from Zack Wheeler in the fifth inning on Wednesday, drilling the 89 mph pitch 442 feet. The score-opening solo shot soared over the left field fence at 105 mph.
Arcia homered on Tuesday night, too, padding the Braves’ lead in the fifth inning of an eventual 13-1 win. Like the one he hit 16 hours later, Arcia’s solo homer on Tuesday traveled at a velocity that rounded up to 105 mph. It flew 415 feet to left field.
Arcia has hit three home runs since the All-Star break. He has knocked five hits in his last 14 at-bats. He is still not a guy opponents circle in the lineup. But the 27-year-old has shown in the opening weeks of the second half that he can pop up as a sneaky power threat. And in the few days since Canó was designated for assignment, Arcia has validated the Braves’ reasoning for not adding a stronger offensive second baseman before the trade deadline.
“For the last however long Ozzie’s been down, what he’s done and the big hits he’s gotten and the defense that he’s played, it’s been awesome,” manager Brian Snitker said of Arcia. “You couldn’t go out and find that, that’s the thing. When we lost Ozzie, you weren’t gonna go trade for that position and get a guy like (him).”
Arcia may not sustain his current level of production over a lengthy period. With Albies expected to return from his foot injury in the first week or two of September, Arcia won’t be expected to do so. But he thinks he has found an adjustment at the plate that will help him avoid the slump he endured in July, when he batted .170 and posted a 25 percent strikeout rate.
“I’m lifting my leg a little bit more,” he said in Spanish, “so that I can wait a little more on breaking balls and not get ahead of them.”
Riley’s extension uplifting
When Braves third baseman Austin Riley signed a 10-year, $212 million contract extension Monday, one day before trade-deadline day, you might’ve thought he promised to toss wads of cash into the air in the clubhouse, based on the tone of comments from teammates and others.
In actuality, it was just a sign of his popularity in the organization. Teammates and team officials praise the slugger for his work ethic and performance on the field and his easygoing and unassuming personality in the clubhouse and away from the ballpark.
Seldom will you see as many players attend a news conference as there were Braves in the back rows of an interview room at Truist Park Tuesday, barely an hour before the first pitch of their game against Philadelphia, to show support of Riley as he sat next to Anthopoulos and answered reporters’ questions about the contract.
“That was one of the more satisfying acquisitions or signings that I’ve been able to be present for in the clubhouse,” Morton said. “Just a quality human being, great teammate. So I’m really excited for him and his family, being a Brave long term.”
Braves first baseman Matt Olson said, “Since the day I came over here (from Oakland in a March trade) I’ve been able to tell how good of a dude he is. How genuine. And we’ve all seen what he’s done on the field. It’s impressive at his age to do the things he does, the consistency that he does it. I’m really happy that he got that and they were able to work it out. He’s going to be here a long time.”
Snitker said of Riley, “He’s the kind of guy you want to get locked up for 10-plus years. When you talk about guys that represent your organization, that’s the guy (whose picture) you put on buses and vans and all that. I mean, the person he is, the player, the individual. He is everything that embodies the Atlanta Braves.”
Rosario continuing an upward trend
In the week before he underwent a laser procedure on his right eye in late April, Eddie Rosario did so little with his bat that he knocked just three hits in 15 games. At one point that month, he had been held hitless in 22 consecutive plate appearances, the longest drought in the majors.
So it was always going to take Rosario an extended stretch of time to refurbish his numbers.
He is still contending with paltry season numbers. But the .172 average and .489 OPS aren’t all they seem. Rosario has multiple hits in three of his last seven games and a .333 average in that period. Since July 11, he has batted .245 (12-for-49) and driven in 10 runs in 15 games. Only Riley (.380, 12 RBI in 18 games) has been more productive than Rosario on both fronts during this span. Olson, who is batting .221, has more RBI (18) and Dansby Swanson is second in average.
Rosario’s are not Riley-like figures, but they show some promise.
“I just love the fact that Eddie’s kind of getting his legs under him,” Snitker said.
Iglesias boosts bullpen
The arrival of former Angels closer Raisel Iglesias should help the Braves get back to the bullpen dominance they had late last season and in the playoffs, and earlier this season. It had slipped a little lately, with workhorse setup man A.J. Minter going through a recent rough patch and fellow lefty Tyler Matzek still trying to regain something akin to his 2021 dominance after a long IL stint this season for shoulder inflammation.
The Braves had to ride Minter hard — he’s tied for the MLB appearance lead — and they should be able to ease the load a bit on the lefties and on 34-year-old closer Kenley Jansen, who had an IL stint for a recurring irregular heartbeat and was held from a recent game after tweaking his back. Jansen remains a top-grade closer, but adding another closer to the mix, to serve as a setup man and backup closer, makes the Braves’ bullpen formidable for the stretch drive and postseason.
Iglesias is under contract for $16 million each of the next three seasons, so accepting a non-closer role temporarily shouldn’t be an issue for the Cuban right-hander. He goes from the woeful Angels to a pennant race, and should find the vibe enjoyable with the affable Jansen and the rest of a tight-knit bullpen that goes out of its way to put newcomers at ease.
(Photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)