Morton, quick start propel Pirates past Reds
CINCINNATI — The Pirates could have asked for more pitches from starting pitcher Charlie Morton on Tuesday, but they couldn't ask much else of the right-hander, who entered Tuesday 368 days removed from Tommy John surgery.
In a hitters' park, facing a tough Reds lineup, and knowing the starting staff is depleted without four of its five Opening Day starters, Morton allowed three hits over 5 1⁄3 innings to lead the Pirates to a series-evening 4-0 win.
The Pirates moved to within a half game of the Reds for second place in the NL Central.
Morton pounded the strike zone with two- and four-seam fastballs, throwing only 10 off-speed pitches, all curveballs, among his 61 offerings. He threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of 20 batters and generated eight groundball outs, critical in the cramped Great American Ball Park.
“In his second time back in the big leagues to go through five innings, we were way good with that,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “There's no blemish.”
One of the few offerings Morton missed badly with was his first pitch of the game, a 93 mph fastball that hit Shin-Shoo Choo in the calf, almost certainly retaliation for Reds pitchers knocking down Neil Walker and hitting Andrew McCutchen on Monday.
Morton denied hitting Choo intentionally.
Said Hurdle: “He just missed.”
The Reds did not hit a Pirates' batter. So are the bean-ball issues behind the two clubs?
“You throw out a term ‘bean-ball,' I don't go there,” Hurdle said. “It's competitive baseball. When two teams are focused on winning and are not going to blink … you push the envelope a lot of areas, not just pitching but in breaking up double plays, a lot of areas.”
Control is often thought to be the last element to return for a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, but Morton has walked just one batter over 10 1⁄3 innings in his two starts since returning from the ulnar ligament (elbow) reconstruction surgery. He has hit five batters, including Choo and Xavier Paul on Tuesday.
Perhaps most important is that Morton (1-1) appeared strong and healthy.
The right-hander's fastball ran between 91-96 mph, after averaging 93 mph in his first start against the Giants on Thursday. Against Joey Votto in the first, Morton threw a 96 mph fastball, a 94 mph fastball and a 95 mph fastball to the Reds' star. Votto flied out to center. Reports of Morton's increased velocity during his rehab outings appear to not be an exaggeration. Morton's fastball averaged 89.9 mph prior to injury last season and 91.4 mph in 2011.
“He will not be the first guy I have seen come back from the surgery and throw harder,” Hurdle said. “It's a phenomenon to me. ... I don't know how it works, but it does. I guess that new piece they put in there is fresh. The rpms are ramped up.”
Said Morton: “They'll tell you it's rest and strengthening. You are in there a lot doing a lot of strength work. It doesn't surprise me that I'm throwing harder.”
Morton could relax early as the Pirates scored three runs in the first against right-hander Mat Latos (6-1). Starling Marte began the game with a triple and scored on a Russell Martin infield hit. Martin and Garrett Jones, who walked, scored on Pedro Alvarez's two-run single to left.
Latos set down 13 of the next 14 Pirates but was lifted after five innings and 88 pitches for a pinch-hitter. The Reds struck out 16 Pirates, a season high for Hurdle's club. Perhaps all the Pirates could have asked for is more pitches from Morton.
Hurdle pulled Morton after Zack Cozart reached on a third-strike wild pitch with one out and Votto on deck.
Tony Watson relieved Morton in the sixth. He allowed an opposite-field double to Votto, placing runners on second and third with one out, but he struck out Brandon Phillips on three pitches and induced Jay Bruce into a weak groundout to end the Reds' last, best threat.
“If you'll look at Watson's numbers against Votto and Bruce,” Hurdle said, “I want Watson on Votto and I want Watson on Bruce.”
Mark Melancon pitched a perfect eighth, and Jason Grilli shut out the Reds in a non-save situation in the ninth.