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Morton knows if he frees mind, the rest will follow

Hurler trying not to overthink things as he faces Cards in potential clinching Game 4

PITTSBURGH -- Charlie Morton's mind gravitates toward gaining knowledge and experience and working through thoughts and feelings, being that he finds joy and has an aptitude for singing and songwriting. But he makes his profession and expresses his passion through pitching for the Pirates, and he often works through the trappings of a lineup, and the exhilaration and disappointments of a contest require him to subdue his active brain.

Merely taking the mound Monday afternoon (3 p.m. ET on TBS) for Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals -- with the Bucs needing a victory to advance to the NL Championship Series -- has plenty poetic potential.

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The culmination or continuation of a season in which Morton worked through the pains and doubts of coming back from Tommy John surgery, the attempt to extend a streak of hot pitching (4-1, 2.67 ERA in his last 11 starts) against an opponent that often dominates him (0-2, 7.90 ERA in three starts this year; 2-9, 6.52 ERA in 14 starts in his career) surely could inspire prose with a good beat.

But when Morton hits the PNC Park mound, consideration and expression of hopes, fears and dreams is secondary to the simple task of subduing Cards hitters. Think enough, but not too much.

Tale of the Tape: Game 4
Michael Wacha
Charlie Morton
2013 regular season
Overall: 15 G, 9 GS, 4-1, 2.78 ERA, 19 BB, 65 SO Overall: 20 GS, 7-4, 3.26 ERA, 36 BB, 85 SO
Key stat: In five September starts, Wacha posted a 1.72 ERA and held opponents to a .198 batting average. Key stat: Morton has posted a 2.14 ERA (eight earned runs in 33 2/3 innings) in his last five starts at PNC Park.
At PNC Park
2013: N/A
Career: N/A
2013: 9 GS, 2-2, 2.85 ERA
Career: 42 GS, 12-19, 3.56 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Career: 2 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
2013: 3 GS, 0-2, 7.90 ERA
Career: 14 GS, 2-9, 6.52 ERA
Loves to face: Neil Walker, 0-for-4, 2 K
Hates to face: Jordy Mercer, 1-for-3, 2B
Loves to face: Daniel Descalso, 0-for-10, 3 K
Hates to face: Yadier Molina, 8-for-19, 4 2B, 6 RBIs
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: In nine scoreless innings against the Pirates this season, Wacha allowed two hits and struck out six. Why he'll win: Eight of Morton's last 11 outings have resulted in quality starts.
Pitcher beware: In five road appearances this season (three starts), Wacha posted a 4.34 ERA (nine earned runs in 18 2/3 innings). Pitcher beware: The Cardinals hit .397 against Morton in his three starts against them this season.
Bottom line: Wacha is a rookie making his first career postseason start in what promises to be an electric road ballpark. The right-hander will need to keep his composure and trust his veteran catcher, Yadier Molina, to guide him through. Bottom line: Morton needs to establish a rhythm early and preserve it. In first innings this season, his ERA is 1.80 and opponents are hitting .182. But in the second inning, his ERA goes up to 4.12 and opposing hitters are batting .260.

"Anybody would like to believe that from failure, you take something," Morton said. "And I think that's true with anybody, whether it's a season or a span of starts or it's one start. So there are things that I'm going to take from it and I'm going to learn from, but I'm not going to try to reinvent the wheel because I had a couple of bad games against them.

"I don't think we have the ability to say, 'This is why you didn't have success,' based on two games. Because I can look back at games I pitched well and say [that] I did the same thing against them [the Cardinals], it just didn't work out."

This doesn't make Morton any different from anyone else in a sport where success is based on the ability to handle successes and failures, sometimes spectacular either way, over six months. But he's just so darn good at expressing the challenge.

And he's had plenty of challenges in 2013. Morton suffered a right elbow ligament injury May 29, 2012, and underwent the surgery, performed by noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. The righty was back throwing in Minor League rehab games this April 18, and he was back in the Majors by June 13.

Morton's first seven starts, during which he was 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA, represented an adjustment period. The last of those starts was a rough one -- 10 hits and five runs in six innings of a 13-0 loss to the Cardinals at PNC Park. With plenty of experience and ability to throw a myriad of pitches, Morton had to narrow his repertoire while he was adjusting to being back on the mound and gaining confidence in his repaired elbow.

Always having relied on the sinker, Morton developed a cut fastball before the injury to combat left-handed hitters on the inside part of the plate. He had to drop that pitch during his early struggles, although he wants to revisit it next season. Morton also traded his circle changeup for a split-finger fastball. Reducing to the sinker, a curveball and a splitter allowed Morton to sharpen the mechanics he learned from special assistant to the general manager Jim Benedict, who has a deep background in working with pitchers.

On Aug. 7, Morton held the Marlins to two runs on seven hits in a 4-2 victory, then he gave up two runs in six innings against the Cards on Aug. 13 and was off on his hot streak. The most notable rough game came at St. Louis on Sept. 8, when he gave up five runs and six hits in 1 2/3 innings, though he suffered a slight plantar fasciitis flareup in his left foot while covering the plate on a wild pitch. But Morton said he is past the foot issue.

The righty said the key to his strong finish was keeping his mind from racing when he felt anything unusual in his elbow.

"Early on coming back, you feel a lot of weird things in your elbow, and some of it is scary, because you associate the different sensations with the deterioration of your elbow, of the compromised ligament," Morton said. "I'm sure everybody that's experienced a rehab from an injury will tell you the same thing.

"But I had tremendous confidence in the medical staff and I had tremendous confidence in Dr. Andrews' ability to do what he does. It was really about putting in the work and trusting the process. I'm not sure if my arm is necessarily stronger. I feel like I'm headed toward normalcy."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said simplifying the approach has allowed Morton to not focus so much on his issues against lefty hitters -- who have a .328 batting average and a .907 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) against him over his career -- and play to his strengths, especially the sinker.

"I've never seen him as confident as he's been this year," Hurdle said, assessing Morton's development during the season. "He's pitched extremely well from time to time, given us some good games. The confidence on the mound, standing on the rubber, is at a high for him."

With the Cardinals needing to win, history says they have to like their chances against Morton. But Redbirds manager Mike Matheny is loath to think in such disparaging terms about the man who has a chance to end their season.

"We don't single anybody out like that," Matheny said. "We give respect to all these guys and realize at any night, any pitcher can stop a good offense. But we put together a game plan. We take our successes and failures and learn from them from each individual pitcher, and [we] try to put a plan together to give us success for the next time.

"[On Monday], the guys will be ready to go. And we'll put our best game out there. That's what we can do."

With belief in his arm and experience behind him, Morton's task is to clear his mind and heart so his arm can do its job.

"If you look at the game you're going to throw as an important game, it's an important game," Morton said. "I'm not going to go out there and say a game in mid-June doesn't mean anything to me or doesn't mean as much. A lot rides on every game we play. Our careers depend on it. We need to be consistent."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Charlie Morton