Morton quiets Fish, chips in at plate for Pirates
Righty retires final 11, plates tying run in fifth; Bucs three up on Cards
PITTSBURGH -- Thomas Paine famously penned, "These are the times that try men's souls." A journalist, Paine was describing the climate that led to the American Revolution, so that was way before pitch counts or seventh-inning stretches.
Nonetheless, when Charlie Morton met the times that tried his soul, he was standing on the pitching mound at PNC Park on Wednesday night. Line drives exploded and hard grounders kicked up infield dirt all around him.
Morton trailed with none out in the fourth inning, and he had already given up six hits. Then his soul, as well as his stuff, responded.
"You don't want to be giving up hits, but you have to trust what you're doing and keep getting them to put the ball on the ground," said the sinkerball pitcher.
And Morton did, thereafter retiring all 11 men he faced to buy time for the Pirates to mount enough of a comeback for a 4-2 victory over the Marlins.
The game, cheered by 28,173, marked the 51st time the Pittsburgh pitching staff has held the opposition to two runs or fewer, a remarkable accomplishment 113 games into a season. On Thursday afternoon, the Bucs will try to put a bow on their first nine-win homestand since May 30-June 12, 2005, a 9-4 stretch. They are 8-2 going into the series finale against Miami.
Piercing right-hander Tom Koehler's early mastery, Andrew McCutchen signaled reveille with his 16th homer, an opposite-field shot with one out in the fourth. The Pirates added two runs in the fifth, which Morton and relievers Tony Watson and Mark Melancon made sure would be enough. An eighth-inning add-on run on Pedro Alvarez's sacrifice fly made Melancon's seventh save a little more comfortable.
The Bucs' 27th comeback victory was their fourth straight, and improved the Major Leagues' top record to 69-44. It also moved them three games ahead of the Cardinals in the National League Central standings -- marking yet another milestone in the franchise's renaissance.
Although in midseason contention in each of the previous two seasons, the Bucs' biggest division lead those years was two games.
Morton worked around hits in each of the first three innings, but couldn't escape when the fourth opened with three consecutive hits, the last a single blooped over second baseman Neil Walker's reach by Donovan Solano that scored one run. Another came in as Adeiny Hechavarria was bouncing into a double play, making it 2-0.
"Really big," Morton said of the twin-killing. "I don't like to give up runs, but, yeah, that was a good tradeoff."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle saw it the same way.
"That double play got his confidence rolling, and he's got the pitches to get outs and get on a roll," Hurdle said. "The challenge for him now is consistency. He got nicked up in that fourth, and after that started making pitches, trusting the catcher [Russell Martin] and following the glove."
Already put on the board by McCutchen's homer, the Bucs got the upper hand in the fifth with your basic two-run rally: One scored on Morton's sharp single, accounting for the six-year veteran's fourth career RBI, and first since July 24, 2011; the other came in on Koehler's second wild pitch of the inning.
"You give them a chance, and they're going to capitalize on it," said Koehler, haunted by the assist he had given the Bucs in that pivotal fifth inning. "It wasn't necessarily anything they did. Leadoff routine single [by Garrett Jones]. Then you've got a hit batter [Jordy Mercer]. You get two wild pitches, you do that against a good, quality team, they're going to score runs on you. And you can't give up a hit to the pitcher right there."
"I don't know what happened there," Morton said of his hit, almost sounding apologetic.
"When you get breaks, you need to move on them," Hurdle said. "That's one of the signs of a good team. We've been doing a lot of little things very well."
Going seven innings for the second time in 10 starts on his road back from June 2012 Tommy John surgery, Morton (4-3) allowed six hits and two runs. For the fourth time in those 10 starts, he did not issue a walk, while striking out five.
Still being on the mound as late as the seventh inning did not seem to be in Morton's future during those opening innings, when even some of the outs made him wince.
At third, Alvarez was peppered by the hardest smashes off Morton, which made perfect sense because where else would you find the bull's-eye but on a Bull, as Alvarez is nicknamed.
There were plenty of bullets to go around, however. All of the Pirates infielders had to be considering wearing on the field the elbow and shin guards they normally take into the batter's box.
"I can't say enough about them," Morton said, shaking his head. "Everybody in that infield ... it was just unbelievable. It was fun."
Then all of a sudden, Morton hit the mute button. And the Marlins couldn't hit anything.