Charlie Morton is the ground ball. The ground ball, Charlie.
Morton played grounders for seven innings of Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over the Miami Marlins. The Pirates starter faced 25 Marlins batters, saw 20 of his pitches put into play and 15 ground balls to produce a quality start. He even contributed one of the Bucs’ four RBI in a victory that put them three games ahead in the National League Central.
When batters have put the ball in play against Morton this year, 64.7 percent of those balls have been grounders. That is the most among Major League starters and among all pitchers not named Brad Ziegler. Tonight, the number was 75 percent because Morton dropped his two sinking pitches below hitters’ bats: the two-seam fastball and curveball.
“I felt like I got better as the game went on,” Morton said. “If I can throw my curveball correctly, which would make it effective, the problem is sometimes it takes a little bit for me to get a feel for it. The sinker usually is there from the get-go.”
The middle of the Marlins lineup scared up the only runs against Morton in the 4th inning. Giancarlo Stanton snuck a ground-ball single past shortstop Jordy Mercer to lead off the frame. Then cleanup man Logan Morrison doubled to right field to put two runners in scoring position. Stanton scored on Donovan Solano’s RBI pop-fly single, then Morrison scored on Adeiny Hechavarria grounding into a double play. Miami was up 2-0.
Smooth Sailing for Charlie
That double play was the start of Morton retiring the final 11 Marlins batters he faced by making greater use of his little-seen changeup. Morton said he did not locate the pitch well, but it still held the key to shutting down Miami over his last three innings.
“When a hitter goes up there, he’s looking ‘Okay, what does he throw me. And the crucial thing is what does he throw me for strikes too,’” Morton said. “If I can throw a changeup for a strike and just show him something else for a strike, that’s another pitch they’ve got to think about.”
The only two other hits the right-hander gave up were an infield single to Hechavarria and two-line drive singles to leadoff hitter Christian Yelich, all before the 4th inning. Morton’s season numbers through 10 starts: 3.88 ERA and a 3.85 FIP. That’s pretty good for a 5th starter. Even better for Morton in his return from Tommy John surgery: no walks and only two three-ball counts Wednesday night after showing poor control in some previous starts.
“It’s part of coming back from surgery. It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating. I’m sure it’s frustrating to watch. The last thing to come back is control,” Morton said. “But I feel like my stuff’s good, my stuff’s gotten better. And now it’s figuring out how to pitch again. I didn’t pitch for a year. There’s a lot of things I’m re-learning.”
After the Pirates came back from a 3-0 deficit Tuesday night to beat the Marlins, being down 2-0 was like shooting fish in a barrel. In the 4th inning, Andrew McCutchen drove Tom Koehler’s outside fastball into the right-center-field seats for his 16th home run of the season, cutting Miami’s lead in half.
“He got me the first at-bat. I was a little late on his fastball,” McCutchen said after he was the only Pirates batter to record two hits. “So I just need to be able to get my foot down, be ready to hit. That’s what I was able to do.”
Marlins Starter Gone Wild
Koehler, the Marlins starter, was pretty tough to tame for much of the game, allowing only four hits and striking out eight Pirates batters in his outing. But the pitcher lost control in the 5th inning, and then he lost the lead.
Garrett Jones led off the frame with a line-drive single, then Josh Harrison beat out a possible double play to take Jones’ place at first. Harrison then used his speed to steal second. Koehler hit next batter Jordy Mercer, then threw a wild pitch in the dirt to put Mercer and Harrison in scoring position. Morton lined a fastball to right field for his first RBI of the season, tying the game 2-2.
“What you hope is that you contribute, and that’s on both sides,” Morton said. “It’s not ‘look at me, I put a ball in play finally.’”
Then Koehler threw yet another wild pitch to allow Mercer to score the go-ahead run and make it a 3-2 Pirates lead.
“I tried to make the perfect pitch, tried to get the ground-ball double play to get us back in the dugout,” Koehler said. “But I didn’t and then I started trying to do too much.”
Despite his eight strikeouts, Koehler was charged with the loss. The Bucs added insurance in the 8th when Neil Walker hit a leadoff double off Alejandro Ramos and came around to score on Pedro Alvarez’s sacrifice fly.
Reliever Tony Watson and closer Mark Melancon did their Shark Week duties by pitching a shutout 8th and 9th for the Bucs’ 69th win of the season, putting them 25 games over .500 for the first time all year.
These Pirates don’t look like they will be grounded any time soon.