Charlie Morton shines in first age-40 start, a Braves’ rain-shortened rout of White Sox

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CHICAGO — Among interested observers of Charlie Morton’s first start as a 40-year-old was pitcher Michael Soroka, a friend and former Atlanta Braves teammate who’s now on the opposing side. He watched Morton limit the Chicago White Sox to three hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings of the Braves’ rain-shortened 9-0, eight-inning win at frigid Guaranteed Rate Field.

“I mean, you look at what he’s done to be able to stay in this game and perform at the level that he has in his late 30s and now 40,” Soroka said.

Beginning with a bases-loaded strikeout of Paul DeJong to end the first inning, Morton, the oldest active starter in the majors, retired 15 of the last 17 batters he faced. Soroka has seen him enough to not be surprised by the performance. He is among those praising “Uncle Charlie” for his continued high-level performance.

So is Braves third baseman Austin Riley, who hit a three-run homer off Dominic Leone on the second pitch following a 44-minute rain delay in the eighth inning.

“The old saying, aging like a fine wine,” Riley said of Morton. “I think that’s about as true as it comes. I mean, he’s just the ultimate professional. I love playing behind him, love being his teammate. He’s just great.”

Morton and left-handers Dylan Lee and Tyler Matzek combined for the three-hit shutout that moved the Braves to 3-1. The status of the remaining two games in the series remains uncertain because of the weather, with a forecast for heavy rain on Tuesday and snow on Wednesday.

It was 46 degrees and windy for the first pitch of Monday’s series opener, and Morton’s vaunted curveball wasn’t moving like it normally does. That didn’t stop him from carving up a White Sox lineup that has a few potent hitters.

“That was fun because we used all the tools today,” Morton said, crediting catcher Travis d’Arnaud for calling a great game. “We mixed a lot, used all my pitches early. You come out of Florida (spring training), it’s hot and humid, and everything feels pretty good. And you come up here and it’s a little chilly. I think Travy was able to see what I had working and put down the right fingers.

“My breaking ball wasn’t moving like it normally does, but luckily the changeup was there, four-seamer was there. A little cutter was there.”

In his first start of the season and his first at age 40, Morton threw 57 strikes in 91 pitches on a dreary day with one the smallest crowds (13,781) the Braves have played in front of in years.

“It’s incredible,” d’Arnaud said of Morton’s continued level of performance. “I’m sure it’s noticed throughout the whole league, to be 40 and still winging it at 96, 97, and still having a banger curveball. And today his changeup was his good weapon. He loves pitching and he has a good time out there.”

In December, the Braves traded for lefty reliever Aaron Bummer from the White Sox in exchange for a five-player package topped by Soroka, a former elite prospect.

Soroka was universally popular among Atlanta fans and teammates, whose respect for him was enormous for his determination and unwavering optimism while trying to come back from various injuries including a twice-torn Achilles that threatened to end his career.

More than once in discussions with Morton, he’s told Soroka to keep in mind advice Morton also gave recently to Braves pitcher Bryce Elder, who was optioned to Triple A late in spring training. He told them not to let anything — injuries, trades, roster moves — stop them from doing their thing.

“I was like, man, you need to worry about just doing the right thing by you and working on your craft and what you do well and sticking to that plan, and having a goal for yourself that’s not just making the team,” Morton said of his message to Elder after he was sent down during camp, the second year in a row that’s happened to Elder.

“If it’s pitching well for the Braves, or if it’s not pitching for the Braves —whatever that means. Like, carve out a good major-league career for yourself, because … more often than not, it’s not going to go your way or how you planned it.”

Morton felt bad for Elder on a personal level. But he noted that Reynaldo López, a hard-throwing newcomer to the Braves rotation who will face his former White Sox team Tuesday, has been a strong addition. López has had more success throwing 98-100 mph fastballs as a reliever in recent seasons, but the Braves told him when they signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal in December that he would get a chance to start, and throughout the spring he’s looked ready for the role.

The Braves, with seven-time All-Star Chris Sale as their third starter behind Spencer Strider and Max Fried, and Morton and López at the back of the rotation, have arguably the best group of starters in the National League, with more depth at Triple A.

“I just hope we can all stay healthy,” Morton said. “Get through April and see where we’re at. I was sad to see Bryce go down. … But Lopey looks great. Good dude.”

Morton speaks from experience on myriad topics and he engages in conversations with teammates young and not-so-young. It happens whether they approach him for advice, as they often do, and when he just has something to offer that he believes can help them.

“This clubhouse is lucky to have him because he’s such an influential person to each one,” d’Arnaud said.

Elder made the All-Star team last year at 23 in his first full season in the majors, after beginning the season as Triple-A Gwinnett’s Opening Day starter.

When Morton was 24, he went 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) for the Braves, and was back in Triple A the next year and traded to Pittsburgh before pitching in another big-league game. Morton was a top prospect who wouldn’t become a frontline starter until well into his 30s, with his fourth organization.

For Bryce, I think it’s hard because he’s also fighting a narrative,” Morton said. “He’s not just competing and just fighting for a spot. He’s also having to defy the odds. And that’s what makes that difficult because this is an organization that values upside. They value stuff. And when you have a guy that’s throwing 88 to 91 …”

Elder, a throwback, relies on pitch movement and location in an era when most starters throw in the mid-to-upper-90s.

When Elder faded in the second half after his sensational performance before the All-Star break, skeptics said it was more to do with hitters figuring him out than fatigue, and said the Braves couldn’t count on him to do what he did for the first 2 1/2 months, when he was 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA in 14 starts. Morton doesn’t like hearing or reading that, especially since he knows what makes the young Texan tick.

“I know that he didn’t finish the year how he wanted to,” Morton said. “He’s already dealing with all that ‘I’m not a hard thrower, I’m not a strikeout guy.’ People would’ve said (in the past), we can just keep putting him back on the horse. You do (what Elder did) for a team, and you should have a spot and keep moving in your career.”

If it seems as if Soroka has been around for a long time, he’s still just 26. In Morton’s age-26 season, he went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA in 17 starts for the Pirates. Players today can Google other players to instantly learn what they’ve done in their careers, so guys like Elder and Soroka know Morton has been through struggles. Morton went through adversity including Tommy John surgery, mechanical adjustments, diminished confidence and just about everything else.

So when he tells them what to focus on, they listen.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Soroka said in the White Sox clubhouse Monday morning. “It was because of the things that he learned through injuries and all that kind of stuff that led him down the path of finding some efficiency and finding out how to throw and not hurt, and then all of a sudden find performance right behind it.”

After a good spring in which he allowed seven hits, two earned runs and five walks with 17 strikeouts in 13 innings over four starts, Soroka struggled in his first official White Sox start Saturday against Detroit, giving up seven hits, four runs and three walks with no strikeouts in five innings. Much of the damage occurred when he surrendered four hits and a walk to the first five batters of a three-run first inning.

He chalked that up to trying to do too much in his first start for a new team.

“I was a little excited to kind of show off a little,” Soroka said. “Had such a good camp, and I kind of wanted to do more. It doesn’t really work that way in baseball, so next time I’m gonna kind of just get a chill pill a little earlier, you know?”

On that subject, he could also learn from Morton, who has been prone to early-inning traffic on the bases in recent seasons, but usually avoids a big inning or finds a way to settle down. On Monday, he didn’t just keep damage to a minimum, he avoided it altogether after things got hairy in the first inning.

Yoán Moncada had a one-out single and Morton walked Andrew Vaughn with two outs and hit the next batter, Gavin Sheets. But with bases loaded, he struck out DeJong on four pitches including three consecutive 94-95 mph fastballs on the edges of the plate to end the at-bat, after missing with a first-pitch curveball DeJong took for a ball.

“It’s awfully cold out there, and it was windy,” d’Arnaud said. “So in that situation with the bases loaded, we used what we felt he had the best command of, his heater, and he was able to get a huge punchie there. After that, he was able to kind of reset and just go out and execute.”

For younger pitchers like Soroka, it was another lesson from Uncle Charlie.

(Photo of Charlie Morton: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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