Morton pitches Pirates to 5-2 victory, 80th win
MILWAUKEE — Charlie Morton showed the baseball community he is more than just a one-pitch sinkerballer in a 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday. He is an evolving pitcher.
Morton (7-3, 3.00 ERA) began his September performing much like the dominant pitcher he was in August, allowing one earned run in seven innings to lead the Pirates to their 80th victory of the season. The Pirates had not reached 80 wins in a season since 1992.
But in helping the Pirates (80-57) regain a one-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, Morton was a different pitcher than he was in all of his previous starts since returning from Tommy John surgery. He was a complete, three-pitch pitcher.
“I think I've gotten hurt later in games and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I keep throwing sinkers,” Morton said. “I (was) not really throwing a lot of off-speed pitches.”
Morton is known for his effectiveness in compelling opposing batters to chew up the ground in front of home plate by smashing ground balls into the turf.
Hence his “Ground Chuck” moniker. The Brewers grounded out 11 times, and in his past six starts, Morton has an extreme 65-9 groundout-to-flyout ratio.
But Morton, who tied a season-high with six strikeouts, showed in the sixth inning he is not just a one-dimensional, one-pitch pitcher. He has multipitch, multilayered ability.
With 10 pitches in the sixth, including six sharp-bending curves, Morton struck out the side.
• He struck out Scooter Gennett looking at an 80 mph curveball.
• He finished off Caleb Gindl swinging over the top of another curveball.
• He completed the inning by getting Juan Francisco to swing and miss at another curveball.
All three were left-handed batters.
“The curveball has played,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It has some big, hard tilt late. He's continuing to grow.”
But it was another swing-and-miss in the inning that was particularly interesting, a first pitch swing-and-miss by Gindl on a changeup.
Morton had given up on his changeup earlier this season, lacking a feel and comfort level with the pitch.
Without the offering, which fades away from lefties, it explains why left-handed batters entered with a .308 batting average against Morton compared to the .245 mark held by right-handed hitters.
Morton had experimented with pitching coach Ray Searage on a new changeup grip — a split-change hybrid grip — and Morton threw the pitch a season-high 11 times Monday.
Some of the offerings offered considerable fade.
“I hadn't been throwing (a changeup) at all,” Morton said. “I started throwing it again. It's a necessity when you're a starter. I feel like my sinker is good enough, but then guys are going to be all over it if you keep throwing one pitch.”
Morton received plenty of run support, something the Pirates are hoping is the beginning of a trend after bolstering their lineup with two trades last week.
Morton was supported by Jose Tabata, who has made a case to receive playing time even after the eventual return of injured left fielder Starling Marte.
Tabata recorded three hits, including RBI singles to score Clint Barmes in the third and fifth innings, giving the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
A day after Hurdle used Neil Walker in the leadoff spot against a right-handed pitcher, Tabata was back in that role.
Batting second, Walker broke open the game in the seventh, launching a three-run homer, his 10th of the season, off Brewers reliever Alfredo Figaro to stake the Pirates to a 5-1 lead.
Morton didn't require much help. Morton — who went 3-1 with a 2.68 ERA in August — might have found another pitch and another level.