Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Eli Morgan shut down one of the league’s best offenses with a fastball creeping toward the mid-90s that his opponents couldn’t catch up to.
Now, why didn’t you stop me? Because you haven’t heard that before. At least not from anyone not in the throes of a fever dream.
Morgan threw just 77 pitches tonight, but he pitched well enough through his five innings of work to keep Cleveland in the game long enough to secure a win. Their first against Houston this season, and the one they needed to avoid another humiliating sweep.
Most notably, Morgan did something that a lot of Cleveland pitchers haven’t been able to this season. He got out of the first inning quickly, needing just 11 pitches to send Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Yuli Gurriel back to the dugout.
Maybe even more impressively, he did it without throwing a single changeup — he relied entirely on his fastball, slider, and curveball in the first. In fact, he didn’t throw his signature changeup until the last batter of the second inning. It was the only pitch Kyle Tucker saw in the at-bat and he drilled it into the ground for an easy out at first base.
The lack of early changeups allowed Morgan to keep the Astros off-balance early, and turn to his dominant pitch the second time through the order. Assuming Houston reads scouting reports, they probably knew that the rookie pitcher has already shown a tendency to be a two-pitch pitcher. Well, tonight one of those pitches was good enough to keep the other hidden until he needed it most.
Morgan’s fastball averaged 91.3 mph — a full 1.3 mph over his season average — and peaked at 93.1. He threw it a total of 38 times and induced 11 called strikes and whiffs on 21 swings for a CSW% of 29%. His slider, which has been arguably his worst pitch so far in his career, had a CSW% of 41%. In other words, every aspect of pitching that Eli could control (placing the ball well enough to get a called strike, or throwing it well enough to get a swing and miss), he did a fantastic job of.
Houston sat off-speed, and Morgan changed things up by leaning on the fastball. Just a brilliant display of game-planning by Morgan, and presumably, Roberto Pérez behind the plate.
This is still the Astros, though and Morgan is still a rookie, so he wasn’t perfect. Jose Altuve continued his reign of terror against Cleveland pitchers with a home run and Kyle Tucker wasn’t fooled by a changeup he saw in the fifth inning — he took one over the heart of the plate and hammered it 104.9 mph for a solo shot. Two clear mistakes that Morgan paid for with dings to his ERA.
The third earned run credited to Morgan was a double that he gave up to Martin Maldonado before he was replaced with Bryan Shaw in the sixth inning. I don’t quite get the logic behind sending him out there only to pull him after one mistake — as opposed to letting your reliever come in for a clean inning — but that’s what Tito opted to do and it didn’t work out well. Altuve hit a double off of Bryan Shaw to bring Maldonado home and two batters later Yuriel Gurriel brought Altuve home with a single.
Shaw’s sixth-inning mistakes were even more heartbreaking given what transpired in the previous half-inning.
Cleveland loaded the bases in the top of the sixth thanks to singles from Franmil Reyes and Oscar Mercado and a Bobby Bradley walk. After back-to-back strikeouts from Pérez and Yu Chang, Ernie Clement played the hero with a two-out double that cleared the bases and gave Cleveland a 4-2 lead. A lead that was immediately given back in the bottom half of the frame by Morgan and Shaw.
Luckily, Cesar Hernandez’s surprising power surge to start the season continued, and he hit a solo shot in the top of the seventh to put Cleveland up, 5-4. That would wind up as the final score after quiet eighth and ninth innings from both teams.
In only 90 games to date, Hernandez has already set a new career-high with 16 home runs. His overall offensive production is down and he doesn’t look like he’s going to win another Gold Glove any time soon, but dangit the power is obviously there and I’ll take 16 home runs any day.
Cesar’s power wasn’t the only thing on display tonight, though.
In the third inning, with the score at 0-0 and runners on first and second with two outs, Hernandez worked a 10-pitch at-bat — including six-straight fouls — before he finally put a changeup in play that scored the game’s first run.
Hate long, drawn-out baseball games all you want, but nothing will ever stop extra-long at-bats from being amazing. Even just looking at the pitch chart you can just feel the frustration of Lance McCullers Jr. as he throws sliders everywhere he can think of to get this guy to strike out and he just refuses to go down.
After the early and late heroics of Cesar Hernandez, the game was closed out by Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, who combined to pitch two perfect innings — with, oddly enough, not a single strikeout. Clase managed to get Altuve to hit a ball in the air that wasn’t 500 feet, and induced groundouts from Michael Brantley and Yuri Gurriel in the eighth. Karinchak got three straight fly balls from Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, and Kyle Tucker to end it in the ninth.
It wasn’t a flawless game by any means, but winning this kind of game against this kind of team is something positive to build off of, especially for rookies like Morgan and Clement. Cleveland will head back home tomorrow to play a four-game set against an equally tough Rays team.