Biertempfel: Bucs must balance playing hurt or sitting out
Nine days ago, Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton was shelled for five runs in three innings against the Washington Nationals. It was his third straight loss and left him winless in eight starts since July 2.
A few minutes after the game, Morton was seemingly at a loss to explain what's been going wrong. With my iPhone video camera running — you can see our exchange on the Trib's website — I asked Morton if he was healthy.
“I'm OK,” Morton said, nodding. ‘Yeah. I'm good, um, other than the normal stuff.”
About 36 hours later, Morton already had been placed on the disabled list and was flying from Washington to Nashville, Tenn., to be examined by an orthopedic surgeon. The Pirates initially described Morton's injury as “right hip inflammation,” but he revealed Wednesday he was diagnosed with what is commonly called a sports hernia.
Morton said he has been battling the injury since June 2, when he first felt discomfort during the fourth inning of his start against the San Diego Padres. He hopes to be able to pitch again this season and also avoid offseason surgery, but right now nothing is certain.
“I'm not planning on anything other than using this time to put myself in a good spot for when I come off the DL,” Morton said Wednesday.
So was Morton lying nine days ago when he said he was healthy?
There are four kinds of injuries: the kind that end a career, the kind that require a medical procedure and a substantial rehab, the kind that can be overcome by a short stint on the DL and the kind that a player simply endures and plays through.
By the middle of a season, many — probably most — of the players on any baseball team are dealing with some sort of affliction. For guys who have that fourth type of injury, the walking-wounded kind, it feels almost normal.
“You have no idea how often players play through pain,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You never hear about it. I don't share it with you. It's just the way it is. And if nothing further happens, it never gets out. They don't want you to know.
“Sometimes if you ask how they feel, they'll say, ‘I have no health issues.' As far as they're concerned, ‘I have no health issues' means, ‘I'm not playing at 100 percent, which is normally how I have to play anyway.' When it starts to affect performance, that's when you've got to take a more acute look at it. That's the point we got to (with Morton).”
Morton made 13 starts after suffering the hernia. He won three games, including one a week after he got hurt. For a while, it seemed Morton could manage the injury and keep plugging away.
But when the losses mounted and Morton's ERA swelled from 3.29 to 3.84, Hurdle pulled Morton aside for an honest talk. Morton realized it probably was time to take a step back.
Hurdle has had a lot of those kind of closed-door chats lately. The chair on the other side of his desk has been occupied by Andrew McCutchen (rib), Gerrit Cole (lat), Jordy Mercer (forearm), Neil Walker (lower back), Clint Barmes (groin), Starling Marte (concussion) and Josh Harrison (ankle).
Only the player knows how he really is feeling. If the DL is not used, the player and Hurdle know the team will be short-handed for at least a few days on the chance that the injury clears up sooner rather than later.
Hurdle has navigated the Pirates' laundry list of injuries — the ones we know about as well as the ones never disclosed — with DL stints and short-handed setups. To do so, Hurdle has had to look players in the eyes and rely heavily on their honesty.
Could he have done the same thing a couple of years ago, when he was still a relative newbie with the Pirates?
“Possibly not,” Hurdle admitted. “One of the things we've tried to accomplish since I've been here is that trust. You create the most trust during the adversity that comes with it. To be able to sit Andrew — or Walker or a number of other guys — down in that chair and talk about how he's feeling ... it's the process we've worked through. Whether it be injury or poor performance, I do believe these guys know they have ownership and their voice matters.”
Sometimes, but not always, after Hurdle and an injured player have an honest talk, people outside the clubhouse also are privy to what's really going on.
“They say the truth shall set you free,” Morton said. “It feels good to finally be open about this.”