Before this week, the last time Charlie Morton pitched in a Pirates uniform was at the end of Spring Training. In that outing, he was throwing over Tony Sanchez’s head in warm ups and hitting or throwing behind Phillies hitters. Still not over his hip surgery from September, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list to start the season.
Morton’s performance left the Pirates with no recourse. Everything went wrong.
“It does nobody any good for me to go out there and have no clue where the ball is going,” Morton said. “So that’s what I was going through in spring training. My catch play felt terrible, my bullpens felt terrible. When I got in the game it was just competing with what I had and that’s not a good feeling when you’re going into the season trying to contribute.”
When he returned Tuesday no one knew what to expect, a recurring theme for Morton the last few seasons. This year, there’s a little more at stake for Morton, as he’s in the second year of a 3-year, $21 million extension signed before last season.
“He’s 31 years old,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s been through a lot. I’m sure there was some adrenaline early.”
One day, he could take the bump with no idea where his pitches are going. The next, he could just as easily one-hit the Cardinals for seven innings.
Another start against the Cardinals sums up Morton’s career. He was tabbed the starter for Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS in Pittsburgh and shut St. Louis out for five innings.
Then, he walked Carlos Beltran to start the sixth and gave up a two-run home run to Matt Holliday. That turned out to be all the Cardinals needed to tie the series at 2-2 before they went home and advanced to the NLCS.
One bad inning always lies in wait for Morton. When it will happen, who knows, but it usually does.
Through two starts since his return, that hasn’t been the case. Morton has allowed four runs over 14 innings, and won both outings — against Miami Tuesday and San Diego Saturday.
So far, there’s been no bad inning.
Morton wasn’t sent to the disabled list because he was hurt, but more that he was “recovering” from an injury. Meaning, he needed to find his mechanics. It looks like he has. Morton says his pitching stroke is better and more fluid while he has also gotten the timing down on his delivery.
“Everything is a little bit better overall,” Morton said. “Those are things I can keep tweaking, fine tuning and get better.”
His actions match the words. Morton makes his living forcing big-league hitters to hit the ball on the ground, which they’re doing at a 78.3 percent rate so far.
In his return Tuesday, Morton got 18 of his 21 outs on the ground. He had no issue commanding a tight sinker that never strayed from the lower part of the strike zone while mixing in his curveball, which he’s shown to be effective when he is on his game.
“That was the best I felt in a while,” Morton said. “Even last year, the second half of last year was a struggle mechanically. That’s what I’ve been working on for a month. I hope it showed up.”
It sure did, and the results were replicated Saturday. Morton allowed only one fly ball and picked up 16 more outs on the ground, then added in a fielder’s choice that scored the eventual game-winning run in the sixth.
As a result of his pitching style, he’s going to keep his first baseman very busy. Pedro Alvarez doesn’t mind.
“He’s got such good stuff and always keeps us in the game,” Alvarez said. “Good pace and he’s a very tough pitcher on those hitters and what he did today, that doesn’t surprise me.”