It’s Charlie Morton (12-3) against David Price (7-4) as the Red Sox (59-48) try to keep the good times rolling in Fenway as the Tampa Bay Rays (60-48) come to visit for a three game set. Both the Rays and the Red Sox are currently on the outside looking in in terms of the Wild Card, at a half game and a game, respectively, behind Oakland for the second spot.
Ah, Christ, not these guys again. News of possible bullpen relief notwithstanding, this Rays team has been a thorn in Boston’s side all year and a consistent intradivision competitor. Not only have the Rays played the Red Sox tougher this year than in years past, but this year, they always seem to come around, like the ever-present raven in the eponymous poem, when they’re least wanted. To wit: the first time the Rays played the Sox this year up in Fenway was on April 27. Boston was still trying to right the ship at 10-15, but had recently won 5 of their last seven, including a couple nice wins to close a series with Detroit and a sweep of those same Rays in a three game set at Tropicana Field. So what happened? A two game sweep, which in turn bought the Red Sox another 10 days before they’d see .500 on the year, on May 8th, in Baltimore.
The next time the Rays came to visit, Boston was 33-29 and looked poised to build on recent successes and race to 10 games above .500. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, as the Rays pasted an at-times-uncompetitive looking Sox squad in three games out of four. Now I know that the Rays have lost 6 of their last ten and have seemed, at times, to be in freefall, and I know that the Red Sox have taken Morty’s advice to a certain degree and seem to have gotten their s*** together, but the fact is, and despite the fact that the season series is knotted at 6-6, Tampa’s been just a little bit better than Boston, scoring 4.3 runs and only allowing 3.7 per game. So will Tampa politely and quietly move out of the way as Boston tries to catapult themselves back into division competition? Quoth the Rays-vens: Nevermore.
Which brings us to the biggest impediment to not only a win tonight, but also to a series win, and that’s Charlie Morton. Over the last couple series, the Red Sox have used the first game of each series to set a tone, beating the Rays 9-4 last Monday and the Yankees, in delicious, glorious fashion, 19-3, but as the title of this post says, if you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best, and Charlie Morton has been, I would argue, not only among the best in the American League this year, but among the best he’s ever been in his career.
At 12-3, Morton is on pace not only for most wins in his career in a single season, but also the lowest ERA, lowest FIP, highest K/9, lowest BB/9, and most IP of any single season in his career. He could win the Cy Young and, ah, seems to have gotten better as he’s gotten older. For him, he’s having a fantastic year, and even a cursory look at the underlying metrics provides some indication as to why. For instance, per statcast, though the average velocity of Morton’s four-seamer is down a tick to 94.72 Mph from last year’s high of 96.10, he’s generating the highest average spin rate in the last three years on that pitch. But oh, that curveball. Per statcast, Morton’s thrown his curve more often than his four seamer over the past three years, and it’s not hard to see why: though he’s generating slightly less average velocity on it than in years past, it’s spinning, ducking, and darting just about as much as it ever has. Not only that, but he’s freezing batters in their tracks: in 2019, of the 133 called strikes he’s thrown with the pitch (also on pace to be easily the most in any season in his career), fully 20, or 15%, have been called third strikes, good for the highest rate of called third strikes with the curveball over the last three years, nearly doubling the rate from 2018.
As for Price and the Red Sox, their success off of Morton has been, in a word, spotty. Though Boston batted .338 off of Morton last year and had an OPS against him of 1.052, that success has not carried over into this year, where they’re batting a scant .178 and slugging a mere .265. As for Price, he’s been good-but-not-great this year against the Rays, showing a 1-2 record with a 3.13 ERA, but he’s been able to hold them to a .217 BA in 23 innings, the most against any opponent this year. He has, however, had a couple of stellar games against them, throwing 6 innings of one-run ball on June 8th at Fenway (their only win of that series, you’ll recall) and giving up a mere 2 runs in a gutty 5 innings on April 21 in a no-decision at the Trop.
Still, tonight’s game seems like it’ll be an uphill battle for the Old Towne Team. Charlie Morton seems like he’s at the height of his powers, and the Rays, like the Sox, are right in the thick of the wild card chase. If the Red Sox don’t get to Morton early, it doesn’t seem all that likely that they’ll get to him at all. While the off-day should have benefitted the bullpen and Price should get a relatively quick hook in case of trouble in the middle innings, the Sox are going to have trouble using this game to set the tone for the series. Of course you never know and That’s Why They Play the Games, but it feels like the Rays have the edge tonight.