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Morton looks like his old self in season debut

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates starter Charlie Morton knew his pitches were working during three Minor League rehab starts. He saw the results: a lot of ground balls and some swings and misses.

He knew he could get outs against big league hitters, too. The last step in his circuitous path back to the mound, after September hip surgery and recovery and an ugly spring and two mechanical overhauls, was proving he could.

Morton passed his first test Monday night, throwing seven efficient innings and recording 18 outs on the ground -- 16 groundouts, including two double plays -- in the Pirates' 4-2 win over the Marlins.

Morton looked and felt like he could have pitched deeper into the game, too, but he came out after 87 pitches and earned the win in his season debut.

"I think it was just a relief," Morton said. "To go out there and do it, it's really a good feeling."

Morton didn't just get results, though. He got them in the way he's accustomed to. He worked quickly, retiring 15 batters on three pitches or fewer. He didn't walk anyone. His velocity was mostly where it was a few years ago, and his sinker was moving.

After attempting to revamp his delivery during the offseason, Morton said he felt "terrible" during Spring Training. The last time the Pirates saw him on a big league mound, he struggled mightily against the Phillies in an exhibition at Citizens Bank Park.

Something had to change if Morton was going to be an effective pitcher again. So he went back to what felt comfortable, and it paid off Monday.

"That was the best I've felt in a while. Even last year, the second half of last year, it was a struggle mechanically," Morton said. "That's what I've been working on for a month. I hope it showed up."

It showed up for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.

"Charlie stepped in, stepped up and competed," Hurdle said. "The numbers tell you how his mechanics worked."

Morton said the only nerves he felt Monday were the "completely normal" ones, the kind he wants to feel every time he scales the mound in a Major League game. The 31-year-old has dealt with a number of injuries, including Tommy John surgery, and had to reinvent himself before.

But he could provide an enormous boost to the back end of the Pirates' starting staff the rest of the season, a steady arm to complement the top three starters responsible for this weekend's three-game sweep of the Mets.

As early returns go, Monday night was about as much as the Pirates could have hoped for in Morton's step back into the rotation.

"There's some things that can get better," Morton said, "but I feel really good."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
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