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With Morton, appearances can be deceiving

CHICAGO -- Charlie Morton is not the first pitcher to undergo a transformation when he is handed a baseball. Soft- and well-spoken off the mound, he still projects as someone easygoing on the bump. But Morton has the inner growl of a fierce competitor, and he delights in making batters look foolish as they try to keep up with the dip of his sinker.

As for trying to exploit his outer calm by taking liberties you wouldn't with someone more fearsome holding the ball ... Forget it. In his 20 starts last season, Morton hit 16 batters; no one in the National League hit more. In his first start of this season, he clipped the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo with his first pitch after Starling Marte had been hit.

"He's really focused on the mound. Focused and serious," said Russell Martin, Morton's catcher. "And very humble for how good he is."

This dichotomy does not make Morton an original. Greg Maddux was like that. Before him, Jim Bouton pitched with a novelist's disposition. Orel Hershiser came across like Harry Potter's forerunner, so Tommy Lasorda legitimized him by calling him Bulldog.

So Morton is not the first. But he could be on his way to being one of the best.

Said manager Clint Hurdle: "Charlie has gone from hoping to win to expecting to win."

Morton's sample size is small, shrunk further by the fact that it crosses into Spring Training territory, but the 30-year-old righty is putting up numbers and putting down batters at eye-opening rates. Even though he will be making only his second regular-season start on Tuesday, in a rematch with the Cubs in Wrigley Field, his 2014 work is already notable because of its consistency. Morton has always been on.

In five games, Morton has pitched 17 innings and given up one earned run. He gave the Cubs nothing last week in PNC Park, shutting them out for six innings on four hits.

It was one start, but it neatly captured the new Morton. Chicago manager Rick Renteria stuffed his lineup with six left-handed hitters, who for six years have had Morton for lunch. Morton gave them a few scraps -- all four hits were by the lefties, but it took them 14 at-bats -- but didn't let them dictate his approach.

"Earlier, lefties' batting average against him paralyzed him mentally," Hurdle said. "It didn't matter if all the hits were ground balls. If it was a hit, it freaked him out. It absolutely electrocuted him. Now he realizes he has to pitch to his strengths. He has matured to where he knows he just has to make pitches, and whatever happens to them doesn't matter, they don't affect the next pitch."

That confidence in his stuff and location is critical, because Morton has been convinced that the best place for his moneymaker sinker to left-handed batters is inside. And we all know what happens to inside sinkers that do not sink.

"What he's doing now that we didn't see in the past is make a commitment to using that two-seamer inside," Hurdle said. "He'll keep throwing it as many times as he needs to get it to feel right."

There is a phrase associated with such conviction that has been around as long as the seventh-inning stretch: "Trusting your stuff."

"At first, it was never, 'What I have is good enough.' I was always questioning myself," Morton said, "and making things more complicated. Now I'm good with what I've got. I just have to throw it in the right place. The key for me is still to have the count in my favor, to put batters on the defensive, where they are more likely to chase the sinker."

Morton is not shy about exploiting other advantages in the early season, such as the weather, and the undeniable fact that hitters are working from behind, too.

"I like pitching in the cold. I think all pitchers do," Morton said. "Hitters are probably more uncomfortable, because if they don't square up the ball, it doesn't feel too good.

"And any lineup is still trying to get its timing down. It's easier for us pitchers, because we can pretty much start practicing whenever. Earlier in the season, you get away with a little bit more, and that's pretty much what I try to do -- work both sides of the plate with four- and two-seam fastballs, make sure to get that curveball over and mix in an occasional changeup."

Morton gives all of those pitches extreme movement, proving that your stuff can be nasty, even if you are not.

"Stuff-wise, when you just talk to him, you have no idea," Martin said. "He has great pitches. Strong arm. Good velocity. Great breaking ball. And the amount of movement he gets on his fastball is remarkable."

It's enough to disarm batters.

"You don't really feel threatened as he's coming at you. You think you can barrel up the ball," Martin added. "Then -- you got nothing."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Charlie Morton