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Braves win Game 1 of the World Series but lose ace Charlie Morton to a broken leg

X-rays revealed that Charlie Morton suffered a broken fibula during Game 1. (Ashley Landis/AP Photo)
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HOUSTON — Everybody in baseball loves Charlie Morton. He used to pitch for the Houston Astros, and José Altuve called him the best teammate “you can ever have.” He now pitches for the Atlanta Braves, and his teammates say they treasure him, his humility, and his thoughtfulness, too. He began this World Series as universally respected as a baseball player can be. He will end it as a legend.

Because no one on either side will forget what Morton did in the Braves’ 6-2 win in Game 1 on Tuesday night. After a comebacker hit his right leg in the second inning, Morton jogged over to cover first base. He struck out a batter. He got another to ground out. He sat for a whole half-inning, returned to the mound and struck out Altuve. Then he walked off the mound with a trainer and out of the World Series, no longer able to put weight on a leg that X-rays would soon reveal had a broken fibula.

“It was incredible that he even thought of going out there, and I bet you it was so [reliever A.J. Minter] could have some more time to get ready. He sacrificed himself,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I don’t think he knew it was broken right away, but he knew it was hurting.”

This is Morton, according to the teammates who see him every day — humble, determined, dutiful. And these are the Braves — beaten, bruised, and barreling through the playoffs all the same.

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Even without Morton, they took a series lead on one of the best hitting teams of this generation. Even without Morton, they secured their first win in a World Series game since 1996 as they seek their first title since 1995.

Whether Atlanta can survive the loss of Morton remains to be seen. The cerebral 37-year-old seemed certain to start again later this series, probably at an even more crucial moment. Atlanta is now down to two surefire starters. It will have to piece things together somehow, which may be just fine: Piecing things together is how the Braves got here.

That Atlanta would be in the World Series at all, let alone leading it, was at best a possibility, at worst an unlikelihood and never an expectation. That the Braves would be here without superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. was nearly unthinkable. But in need of a new outfield, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for four new outfielders — all of whom “hit,” literally and figuratively.

Jorge Soler hit first Tuesday night. He took Astros left-hander Framber Valdez’s third pitch of the game out to left field — and did so emphatically enough that left fielder Michael Brantley hardly moved. No one had ever hit a leadoff home run in the opening game of the World Series.

The key to Atlanta’s season, as the players say, is rolling with the punches. When injuries threatened their core early in the season, they built a new core and figured it out. When Soler tested positive for the coronavirus before the National League Championship Series, Atlanta replaced him at the top of the order with Eddie Rosario, who went on to become the series MVP.

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“The other day when Soler was scratched two hours before the game, I told [Anthopoulos] ‘don’t worry. These guys are going to keep going. They’re going to keep battling’,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said. “We’ve been through this many times this year, losing key components of our club. I mean really key components.”

Had Acuña been healthy, for example, he would have been a strong candidate to give the Braves a boost with a leadoff homer. Soler did it instead. Then Ozzie Albies singled and stole second base and Austin Riley doubled.

Joc Pederson singled as part of a rally that yielded one run in the second. Rosario led off the third with a single and scored when Adam Duvall homered to make it 5-0, chasing Valdez. By the third inning of their first World Series game together, those four new outfielders were 4 for 8 with three RBI and three runs.

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At first, that effort came in support of Morton, who closed out the now-controversial 2017 World Series for the Astros. Morton walked two to help the Astros load the bases in the first inning Tuesday night, then got out of it thanks to an impressive play by Albies at second base to end the inning. He set the Astros down in order in the second. He struck out Altuve looking to start the third. Then a trainer came out.

“You don’t wish bad on anybody,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said. “And I’ve heard Charlie Morton is one of the best guys around.”

Exactly when Morton’s leg broke is not exactly clear. d’Arnaud said Morton told him between innings that the comebacker “got him good,” but didn’t communicate any sense that his leg was broken. Snitker said trainers checked Morton between innings and thought he was fine, which may mean that the leg actually broke when he went back out to the mound. Instead of throwing 16 pitches with a broken leg, maybe he only threw a few.

But his teammates don’t seem to care about the details. Whenever the leg went from sore to broken doesn’t much matter. All they needed to know was that Morton did one of the gutsiest things they have ever seen.

“Everybody knows Charlie. He’s a hero in the postseason,” reliever A.J. Minter said. “So that’s definitely a blow, losing him in Game 1. But if you’ve been watching us all year, it’s been answering the bell and overcoming adversity all year.”

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So it was time to start figuring things out, and that process began with Minter. Minter had not pitched more than two innings in any outing this season. He threw 2⅔ innings and allowed one run that wouldn’t have scored were it not for an error. He threw a career-high 43 pitches, making it work. Minter has thrown 10 innings in this postseason, allowed one run and struck out 14.

In the meantime, every Atlanta hitter had at least one hit by the sixth inning. The Braves added a run in the eighth on a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly, the first World Series RBI for the man with the seventh-most RBI in the long history of the franchise. But the lingering takeaway may be that the first pitcher to start a World Series game for Atlanta in two decades will not start another this year.

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“It’s tough losing Charlie. The person he is in the clubhouse, the mentor he is in the clubhouse, especially this time of year is very valuable,” d’Arnaud said. “For us to lose him in Game 1, it’s a dagger.”

Morton will be relegated to moral support, which teammates past and present say was always his greatest strength anyway. As for what happens on the field, the Braves will have to figure that out without him. They’re used to that by now. After a year of piecing things together as they go, the Braves are three wins from figuring things out all the way to a World Series title.

— Chelsea Janes

This story has been updated. Highlights and analysis, by Scott Allen and Adam Kilgore in Washington, are below.

Read more on baseball:

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12:05 a.m.
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It’s all coming up Atlanta. Eddie Rosario is not a well-regarded defensive player, but along with being the hottest hitter on the planet, he’s also played like a Gold Glover in Game 1. He held Michael Brantley to a single in the seventh inning. In the eighth, he fielded Yuli Gurriel’s drive off the very top of the center field wall and fired a strike to second base, where Ozzie Albies continued his excellent defensive game and made a sweet tag to nab Gurriel, who very much ran like a 37-year-old first baseman. The Astros came within inches of adding a run, and instead the eighth inning ended with the Braves leading, 6-2.
11:53 p.m.
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Dansby Swanson generated a key run with speed and great base running. Swanson went first to third on a ball that did not leave the infield, alertly taking an extra base when Jorge Soler’s dribbler rolled past Ryan Stanek and into a barren right side of the infield. Freddie Freeman hit a shallow fly to right, and Swanson beat Kyle Tucker’s throw with a blazing sprint home and a nifty slide to the tip of the plate. Swanson is one of the game’s best base runners, and he showed it in giving the Braves a 6-1 lead. Big run, as it takes the game out of slam range. Will Brian Snitker stay off closer Will Smith now?
11:34 p.m.
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José Altuve is the player who makes the Astros go, their heart in the middle of the infield and top of their order. And he’s stuck in one of the worst slumps of his career. Altuve is 0 for 4 tonight with three strikeouts, giving him his first three-strikeout playoff game in his 74th postseason game. Altuve is 2 for his last 25 with five strikeouts. In these playoffs overall, he is 8 for 44 with 11 strikeouts. Altuve has been falling behind in counts and looks jumpy at the plate. It’s hard to envision the Astros celebrating if he can’t fix his approach and his swing.
11:22 p.m.
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The Braves had a chance to expand their 5-1 lead, but Ryan Stanek induced a 6-4-3 double play from Travis d’Arnaud — a great stretch from Yuli Gurriel at first base made the difference. That will likely force Brian Snitker to go to both top set-up man Tyler Matzek and closer Will Smith for most, if not all, of the final nine outs, especially with the top of Houston’s lineup upcoming. It feels like a blowout, but the Astros’ bullpen has kept the game within slam range. It all matters in a long series, especially with the Braves down Charlie Morton.
10:52 p.m.
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Expect pace of play to become a talking point this World Series. The ALCS slogged for six games. Game 1 of the World Series — a 5-1 game with a lot of pitching changes but not a particularly wild affair — is on pace to last more than four hours. MLB knows it’s problem. It’s not even the time of game. It’s how long the lulls are between action. A game that has often been fascinating is now crawling.
10:27 p.m.
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Charlie Morton will miss the remainder of the World Series after x-rays revealed he broke his right fibula, the Braves announced. Morton was injured when a comebacker hit him in the lower leg. He faced three batters and retired them all, including a strikeout of José Altuve with his final pitch, after he broke his leg. The injury could force the Braves to juggle their starting rotation. Max Fried is scheduled to pitch Game 2 and Ian Anderson is lined up for Game 3. The Braves were already likely to make Game 4 a bullpen game. They may have to adjust now. They could make Game 3 a bullpen game and save Anderson for Game 4, allowing them to space out bullpen games in Game 3 and Game 5. That would run the risk of forcing them to start Anderson on three days rest in a possible Game 7. Brian Snitker has a lot of hard choices ahead.
10:20 p.m.
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Dansby Swanson committed the Braves’ first error by a non-pitcher these playoffs, booting a double play ball. He compounded the error by not immediately chasing the ball, allowing Yuli Gurriel to scamper to third base with one out. A.J. Minter bailed him out, continuing a huge performance by striking out Martin Maldonado and popping up José Altuve. After the injury to Charlie Morton, Minter has kept the Braves in control. He’s up to nine scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts this postseason.
10:03 p.m.
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Jake Odorizzi struck out the side as he pitched around an error in the fourth. His performance is massively important for the Astros. Odorizzi, typically a starter, has a chance to keep the Astros within striking distance. More importantly, he can save the Houston bullpen and coax the Braves’ best relievers into the game. He threw 82 pitches in Game 2 of the ALCS, an outing that made a huge impact in the series even though the Astros lost the game. How Odorizzi performs matters less than how long he can pitch. If he can give Dusty Baker four or five innings, he’ll be a hero inside his clubhouse no matter the score.
9:40 p.m.
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Who’s going to win the World Series? Probably the team that best handles pitching attrition. Charlie Morton exited abruptly with the Braves leading, 5-0, with one out in the third. He winced and rubbed his lower right leg after delivering a pitch, signaling to the dugout immediately that he could not continue. The Braves have to hope their 37-year-old ace can return later in the series. Even if he can, they need 20 outs from their bullpen. Framber Valdez recorded just six outs. Game 2 probable starters Max Fried and José Urquidy have a lot on their shoulders Wednesday night.
9:28 p.m.
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Before the Astros recorded an out in the top of the third, the mission for both teams shifted. Adam Duvall knocked out Framber Valdez and gave the Braves a 5-0 lead with a two-run homer. The outcome of the game is barely in doubt. Dusty Baker must navigate the final 21 outs without giving the Braves any looks at his best relievers. Charlie Morton needs to pitch deep enough to give his bullpen a break. Yimi Garcia and the rest of the Astros secondary relievers need to pitch well enough to coax Brian Snitker into using his best relievers so Houston’s hitters can get a look at them. The Braves may have nearly sealed Game 1 already, but the rest of the game could have a significant impact on how the rest of the series unfolds.
9:05 p.m.
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Framber Valdez posted a 70.3 groundball rate this season, making him perhaps the best groundball pitcher in the majors. The Braves’ approach has mitigated his strength. They’ve mostly laid off his low sinkers and curves and have laced flyballs and liners. Valdez has gotten some bad luck — Ozzie Albies has two infield singles and Travis d’Arnaud shot a grounder through the infield. But the Braves have been able to lift his pitches as they’ve built a 3-0 lead. It’s worth wondering if pitching eight innings in his last ALCS start is having an effect on Valdez, who pitched into the eighth just once in the regular season.
8:53 p.m.
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If Brian Snitker thought a two-run first inning would give him an easy game to manage, he was wrong. Charlie Morton needed 26 pitches to escape a scoreless first inning, stranding the bases loaded when Ozzie Albies ranged far to his left and gloved Kyle Tucker’s grounder. Morton has cruised through the postseason, but he flashed rare command troubles in the first. He got ahead of Carlos Correa, 0-2, before he let Correa back in the count, bounced a wild pitch and walked Correa on a 3-2 curve. Snitker likely expected to rely on Morton at least twice through the order, if not more, but that seems like far from certainty now.
8:24 p.m.
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Jorge Soler obliterated Framber Valdez’s fourth pitch of the night, sending it so far over the left field wall that Michael Brantley barely moved. Soler, a midseason trade acquisition, only led off 11 times in the regular season, all of them from Sept. 20 onward. His lack of on-base skills make him an atypical leadoff hitter, but he is a menace against left-handers, slugging .510 against them this season. Brian Snitker batted him first even after Soler missed most of the NLCS with coronavirus. The move paid off immediately.
8:06 p.m.
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This is a fascinating and difficult-to-predict World Series. The Astros have the more formidable roster and experience. It’s easy to overlook just how dominant the Braves have been because of their pedestrian record for a division winner. They won 88 games, but they are 42-21 since early August, playoffs included. Both teams are built on fantastic infields. The Braves’ bullpen was excellent against the Dodgers, but they have relied on the same relievers and those pitchers may be tiring. The loss of Lance McCullers Jr. could leave the Astros pitching-poor in a long series. Let’s go.