"He retired 17 on three pitches or less. Only one three-ball count. He nailed every one on the list of things we wanted him to see," the Pirates manager said.
Morton's effort and three RBIs off Andrew McCutchen's bat lifted the Pirates to a 6-2 win over the Cubs in the opener of a four-game series at PNC Park. The win turned out to be an undercard to the major Pirates news of the night, as lauded prospect Gregory Polanco is set to join the team Tuesday after Neil Walker was placed on the 15-day disabled list. But it was the sixth straight series-opening win for Pittsburgh.
It came on Morton's best start in a month. The 6-foot-5 sinkerballer gave up six hits, only one of which left the infield in the first five innings, and he stymied the Cubs by making his pitch count, count.
The 82 pitches were the fewest he threw all season, but it was only the fourth time in 13 starts Morton was able to complete the seventh inning. Morton didn't walk anyone Monday, compared to distributing 11 free passes in his last three starts (16 innings). Morton also has hit 13 batters this season -- four more than any other pitcher in the Majors -- but also did not plunk any Cubs in his third win of 2014.
"A couple pitches I really grooved, I don't really think it was great control," Morton said. "But I got some quick outs, and that helps -- not many deep counts."
In addition to the quick, ground-ball outs, Morton struck out seven batters. He has nine punchouts over his last two outings, which is as many as he had in the four starts prior to striking out nine against the Padres last week. Both Hurdle and Morton contribute the higher number of strikeouts to an improvement of Morton's breaking ball.
"It's a little more consistent, I'm getting a more vertical break, not so much side-to-side," Morton said. "That was something we were working on mechanically. I think it's allowed me to throw more consistent in and around the zone, opposed to pulling them a lot, throwing at a lefty's ankles or his knees or behind him."
McCutchen's damage came on two balls he crushed the opposite way. The first cleared the 21-foot wall in right field for a two-run homer in the third inning and the second hit high off the fence in the fifth, scoring Travis Snider.
Ninety feet has not been enough for McCutchen when he gets a hit this month. In June, the reigning National League MVP has 12 hits, six are doubles, four are homers and the other two are singles. During eight games since the conclusion of May, the Bucs' center fielder has a slugging percentage of .938 and an OPS of 1.370.
"I put myself in a position to hit, I've made a little adjustment," McCutchen said. "I've been seeing the ball a little longer and when I get the bat to it, good things happen."
The Pirates' first run came on a Starling Marte double to the left field corner in the second inning. It was Marte's first hit since May 29 and broke an 0-for-23 skid that kept him out of the starting lineup for four games. He tacked on another RBI double in the eighth inning and finished the game 3-for-4.
"It was fun to watch him," Hurdle said about Marte. "Fun to watch him swing the bat with some athleticism. It was a good game for him to regain some confidence."
Marte was not the only slumping Pirate to reverse recent trends in the win. Ike Davis was hitless in 19 June at-bats entering Monday, but roped a solo homer to center field in the eighth inning.
Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com.