Before Morton could record his first out of the Phillies' four-run third inning, he surrendered six consecutive hits, including five singles and a Shane Victorino two-run homer. The onslaught forced the 24-year-old right-hander to make an early walk to the clubhouse, where he continued to wonder where his fastball had gone.
"That's the worst my arm has felt in a couple of years in terms of having life on the ball," said Morton, who allowed five earned runs and eight hits in just two-plus innings. "There was no life whatsoever. I'm not a location pitcher and I never have been. Against any big league team, that's going to be a problem. If you have no life on your pitches and no out-pitches, you're asking for trouble."
Morton's early struggles allowed the division-leading Phillies to gain an early advantage and cruise to their sixth win in seven games against the Braves this season. They now lead the fourth-place Braves by five games and have won 15 of the past 21 matchups, dating back to last year.
"Any time you can't do your job, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth," said Morton, who hadn't allowed more than seven hits in any of his three previous career starts.
While Morton was dealing with something he hopes is just an annual dead-arm period, Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick was skillfully escaping trouble, allowing three runs in six-plus innings. The Braves recorded just one hit in 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position and did all of their damage against Kendrick during the seventh inning.
"I just think we really need to get on that guy," second baseman Kelly Johnson said of Kendrick, who is now 3-0 with a 4.13 ERA in five career starts against the Braves. "We had a chance to get an early lead and really put the pressure on him and we didn't again. It's a little bit baffling."
Playing for the first time since a lower back strain sidelined him on May 26, Kotsay went hitless in three at-bats with runners in scoring position. He played a role in the fact that both Brian McCann and Jones were left stranded after providing leadoff doubles in the second and sixth innings, respectively.
"You're looking at a team that is struggling to score runs," said Jones, who leads the Majors with a .393 batting average. "With the people that we've had out of the lineup, you can understand it. Getting some people back tonight, you'd expect a little better. But I know I've got some rust and Kotsay has some rust."
After Greg Norton chased Kendrick with a two-run, pinch-hit double, left-handed reliever J.C. Romero issued consecutive one-out walks to Johnson and Jones to load the bases. But Romero minimized the damage to just one run by inducing consecutive groundouts from Mark Teixeira and McCann.
"We just couldn't get the big hit to seize any kind of momentum," Jones said.
The seventh-inning rally pulled the Braves to within two runs. But any hopes of completing the comeback were dashed when Blaine Boyer issued two walks and surrendered three singles, while allowing the Phillies to score three runs with two outs in the ninth.
"We had it tight until the ninth," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Anything can happen with a two-run lead."
At the same time, Cox is well aware of the fact that anything can happen when young pitchers like Morton take the mound. In his previous 15 starts this year, including the 12 he'd made for Triple-A Richmond, the lanky right-hander hadn't allowed a homer. That streak ended when Pat Burrell began the second inning by hitting a 1-2 curveball over the left-field wall.
One inning later, when Victorino homered, it was obvious that Morton didn't have his normal stuff. During the past two seasons, the young pitcher has never thrown more than 100 innings and he's already completed 98 this year.
But Morton says the fact that he lacked velocity wasn't a product of fatigue. In the past, he's endured these dead-arm periods and found himself getting stronger later in the season. Last year in the Arizona Fall League, he remembers lacking velocity during one start and then regaining his arm strength within the next five days.
When he takes the mound to face the Astros on Sunday, he'll be looking for a similar development and results much different than these most recent ones.
"Games like this have been fatal to me," Morton said. "It's all about the next start. ... It's one night and that's how I have to look at it. But at the same time, in the past, I've gotten in a rut and it's tough to get out."