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Pirates' Morton giving batters sinking feeling

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 8:45 p.m.
Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton throws against the Giants in the first inning on Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Pirates have added a rough approximation of an in-their-prime Brandon Webb or Derek Lowe to their rotation in August.

Webb and Lowe were the best groundball pitchers of the past decade at their peaks. They possessed two of the best sinkers in the game and battled year-in and year-out for the best groundball rates in the majors.

They are perhaps comparables for Pirates starter Charlie Morton.

Morton (5-3, 3.42 ERA) continued his superb August in the Pirates' 3-1 victory over the Giants on Friday. Over his past four starts, he has a 2.28 ERA. Perhaps more impressive is his 43-to-5 groundball-to-flyball ratio during that span, which has increased his groundball rate to 65.7 percent.

If Morton — who is a little more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery — had enough innings to qualify, he would lead baseball in groundball percentage and rank six points higher than major league leader Justin Masterson (59.4 percent) of the Indians.

Not since Derek Lowe had a 67 percent groundball rate in 2006 has a pitcher posted a groundball rate better than Morton's mark this season. Morton induced 12 more groundball outs Friday.

The scary thing for opponents? Morton said his feel for his sinker is improving. He allowed just one run in 7 23 innings Friday, his longest start since returning from elbow surgery.

“I think I'm getting a feel for it as my arm progresses,” Morton said. “I have less odd sensations in my arm. A better feel. That allows me to feel it more in my fingers. It really is a feel pitch, even though I really try to let it go. I feel like I'm getting it back.”

Morton has been a two-pitch pitcher most of the season. He shelved his four-seam fastball, cutter and changeup, but his sinking fastball is perhaps the best in the game. It has low- to mid-90s velocity and heavy break, akin to a batter hitting a bowling ball.

With Jeff Locke's second-half struggles, Wandy Rodriguez's sore elbow and rookie Gerrit Cole still refining himself, there's little doubt Morton is the club's third-best starting pitcher.

And Morton — who, along with Locke, came over in the trade that sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta in 2009 — believes there's still room for growth.

He said his next step is mixing in his changeup to have a weapon to combat left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting .311 against him; righties are batting .251.

“I did throw it (Friday),” Morton said of his changeup. “Not effectively. I gave up a hard hit off of it, and I didn't throw it for strikes.”

Morton's other pitch is his curveball, which he has used as a strikeout pitch against left-handed pitchers. Gregor Blanco swung over the top of it twice for strikeouts Friday. Morton said he still is learning to trust the pitch.

“I think I'm still a little hesitant on some curveballs,” Morton said. “It's really hard to trust it fully.”

The pitch he does trust fully is his sinker. It's perhaps the best in the National League, and it will perhaps make Morton the best sinkerballer in the majors.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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