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Pirates notebook: Morton shows off new weapon

| Tuesday, March 4, 2014, 11:57 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton delivers to the Tigers' Don Kelly during the second inning Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton delivers to the Tigers' Austin Jackson during the second inning Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Jeff Locke pitches against the Yankees on Feb. 27, 2014 at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. Locke was scratched from his next start against Toronto on Wednesday.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Gregory Polanco prepares to bat with Pedro Alvarez and Brent Morel during a game against the Tigers Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Gregory Polanco doubles against the Tigers during a spring training game Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Gregory Polanco runs down a fly ball hit by the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera during the fourth inning Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

LAKELAND, Fla. — With one pitch Tuesday, Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton demonstrated why he could be better this season than he was a year ago while making a strong return from Tommy John surgery.

In the third inning at Joker Marchant Stadium, Morton threw a diving split-changeup that Tigers left-handed hitter Don Kelly swung over the top of for a strike. As good as Morton was last season — he went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA and would have led baseball in groundball rate had he enough innings to qualify — Morton struggled against left-handed hitters. Morton lacked a third pitch to complement his sinker and curveball, and lefties hit .302 against the right-hander. The lack of a third pitch is an issue in the National League Central Division, which features a number of impact left-handed bats.

After discovering the hybrid split-change grip late last season, Morton has refined the pitch in bullpen sessions this spring. On Tuesday, he demonstrated its lefty-neutralizing potential.

“I threw one today. It was a good one,” Morton said of the 85 mph pitch to Kelly. “I'm trying to throw it more in bullpens and get a better feel for it. It's been decent in bullpens, but taking it into a game is a different story. It's a feel pitch, and at the same time you really have to throw it. It's an interesting combination.”

The importance of the pitch was underscored later in the at-bat. Kelly slashed a hanging Morton curve for a double. It was the only hit Morton allowed in three scoreless innings. His biting 91-94 mph sinker produced five groundouts.

Locke scratched, Cumpton struggles

Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke will not make his scheduled start Wednesday because of what the club described as “tightness” in his right side. Locke is competing with Edinson Volquez for the club's final rotation spot.

Locke was excellent in the first half of 2013, going 7-1 with a 2.15 ERA to earn his first All-Star Game invite. But Locke regressed in the second half of last season and was briefly demoted to the minor leagues. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had no postgame update on Locke's status.

Brandon Cumpton, another potential back-of-the-rotation arm, struggled Tuesday, allowing two runs (both unearned) and four hits in two innings.

Polanco stays hot

No matter what Pirates No. 1 prospect Gregory Polanco does this spring, general manager Neal Huntington said over the winter the prized outfielder was unlikely to break camp with the major league club. That does not preclude Polanco from making it a difficult decision.

Polanco registered two hits off Detroit starter Rick Porcello on Tuesday. Polanco used his speed to beat out an infield single in the first inning and lashed his second double of the spring in the third.

Polanco is batting .333 this spring and is tied with Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Chris McGuiness with a team-best five hits.

“He's doing some good things,” Hurdle said. “The awareness has picked up (when) you hit a guy third. … (Porcello) hangs a breaking ball, and (Polanco) bangs it off the wall. He has a good path to the ball and focuses on the big part of the field.”

Polanco is rated as the No. 10 overall prospect by Baseball America.

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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