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Starkey: Morton's critical for Pirates

| Thursday, July 7, 2011

Everybody's talking about whom the Pirates should add before the July 31 trade deadline. How about the Pedro Alvarez of last summer and the Charlie Morton of April and May?

If those two guys show up, this club has a great chance to play meaningful games in September. We're talking about a middle-of-the-order bat and top-of-the-rotation starter.

The Alvarez discussion can wait until after the All-Star break, as he continues his rehab. Let's focus on Morton, who made another critical start Wednesday night, his second since he was pulled from the rotation for a turn because of arm fatigue.

I asked pitching coach/miracle worker Ray Searage late Tuesday whether he was confident Morton would regain his early season form.

"Oh, definitely, he will recapture it," Searage said. "I'm quite confident of that. We just gotta get him through this period."

That might not be so easy, though Morton didn't get much help last night. He battled through five innings, permitting no runs and three singles, before his evening fell apart in the sixth.

Morton's trademark sinker abandoned him. Looking back, he wished he'd abandoned it, in favor of other pitches.

"I'm not a two-pitch pitcher," Morton said. "But I was pitching like one."

It started with Astros leadoff man Michael Bourn bouncing a ball to shortstop Chase d'Arnaud, who threw errantly to first — though it appeared first baseman Lyle Overbay could have caught the ball. Angel Sanchez then lined a double that Andrew McCutchen bobbled, allowing Sanchez to reach third.

Hunter Pence followed with a single, and McCutchen misplayed Carlos Lee's liner into a triple that nearly rolled to the wall.

Morton (7-5) was pulled three batters and two sharply hit pitches later. His line: 5.1 innings, eight hits, four earned runs, a walk and six strikeouts on 84 pitches.

"I can't look at myself and say, 'You did a horrible job tonight,' " Morton said. "But I know the linescore (looks that way)."

That is a fair assessment. Morton wasn't the pitcher who was 5-2 with a 2.55 ERA through two months, nor was he the Morton of June, who rekindled bad memories by sporting an 8.50 ERA.

"There is still work to be done," manager Clint Hurdle said.

After Morton's ugly two-inning outing against Baltimore on June 20, Searage and Hurdle canceled his Sunday start against the Red Sox. They had noticed a dip in Morton's velocity and decided it was best for him to rest.

Care to argue with anything Hurdle and Searage have done this season?

Some sinker-ballers benefit from a tired arm. Morton isn't one of them. He throws the pitch harder than most. It's the pitch that has sparked his turnaround, one he estimates he uses "70 or 80 percent of the time."

He didn't want the time off, mind you, but he could see the coaching staff's point.

"I can run my sinker up there 92, 93, 94 mph, and I just wasn't doing that," Morton said. "In the first inning, I'd rear back and throw it as hard as I could, and it just wasn't there."

It wasn't totally there last night, either, as Morton labored through a 22-pitch first inning. He relied more than usual on his swooping curveball, using it for multiple swinging strikeouts, and wished he'd gone to it more in the sixth.

Morton also shook off catcher Mike McKenry frequently because he wanted "throw my pitches with conviction." The twist was that Houston's right-handers did the damage in the sixth, and Morton owns righties this season.

But even if he wished he had laid off the sinkerball in the sixth, that is the pitch that will make or break his season.

"That's his out-pitch," Searage said. "Where else can a pitcher have one pitch to get himself out of a jam• Charlie possesses that. He can throw it many times as long as the consistency is there. He has broken through a number of barriers this season, and one of them is just getting through the fatigue."

Another will be Morton's performance against left-handers. He went into last night's game allowing a .371 average and .503 slugging percentage to lefties compared to .211/.240 to right-handers.

"We're still working on the four-seam fastball, getting it inside to lefties, and the consistency of his changeup, because he's changing grips here and there," Searage said. "One game (the changeup) will feel comfortable, one game it won't. We're still trying to put those pieces of the puzzle together. It'll come in time."

It had better, if the Pirates plan to stay relevant.

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