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Pirates

Pirates notebook: Morton confident in his mechanics after successful rehab start at Altoona

| Saturday, May 9, 2015, 6:36 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton stands in the outfield during batting practice before a game against the Cardinals Saturday, May 9, 2015, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton stands in the outfield during batting practice before a game against the Cardinals Saturday, May 9, 2015, at PNC Park.
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton gathers baseballs after taking batting practice before a game against the Cardinals on Saturday, May 9, 2015, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton gathers baseballs after taking batting practice before a game against the Cardinals on Saturday, May 9, 2015, at PNC Park.

More than his seven scoreless innings of work for Double-A Altoona on Friday night, Charlie Morton approved of his mechanics.

The 31-year-old right-hander, on the disabled list as he continues to work through hip issues, believes his body will allow him to return to the Pirates' rotation soon.

Though unsure of where he'd make his next rehab start, Morton spoke Saturday afternoon like he has moved past the troubles that caused him to miss the strike zone frequently and even throw behind a batter in his final spring training appearance.

Morton allowed two hits, walked two and struck out five Friday. He threw 84 pitches, 58 for strikes.

Mechanics, on Morton's mind in the first inning in Altoona, became an afterthought as the game progressed.

“The last inning, I was just competing,” he said. “Got a guy on, and I just wanted to finish it.”

Competitive drive carries a pitcher only for so long, though, Morton said. His focus since recovering from surgery on the labrum in his right hip in September has settled on the development of a sound, repeatable delivery.

“I know I can go and get major league hitters out,” he said. “I felt that last year, too. ... But it's not just going out there. It's actually getting the job done and winning games.

“When my mechanics aren't right, which they weren't, my stuff suffers because mechanics creates stuff. When you don't have stuff, you don't get results. Confidence, trust — those things all become an issue, which is the by-product of not being able to do things physically.”

All three of his pitches — sinker, curveball and changeup — came into play during Friday's start. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he received positive feedback from Curve pitching coach Justin Meccage about the full arsenal.

“Only two fly balls, a lot of strikes,” Hurdle said. “It was a very positive, very encouraging performance.”

Looking orderly

Hurdle acknowledged there's not enough data yet to declare the Pirates' recent batting order a winner after a week of disappointing experimentation, but he likes the early returns of using Gregory Polanco as the leadoff man, Neil Walker in the No. 2 spot and Starling Marte at cleanup.

The top five in the Pirates batting order — Polanco, Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Marte and Pedro Alvarez — have not changed in four games, including Saturday's matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Polanco batted first for the ninth straight game, and Walker, Marte and Alvarez hit second, fourth and fifth, respectively, for the fourth straight game.

In his first nine starts at the leadoff spot this season, Polanco had an on-base percentage of .319. In 14 starts as the No. 2 batter, his OBP was .250.

Walker, in his first four starts at the No. 2 spot, produced a .526 OBP, which exceeded the .348 he had in 21 starts at cleanup.

“Greg and I, at No. 1 and 2, being on base, that takes a lot of pressure off No. 3, 4 and 5,” Walker said. “Hitting in the No. 2 hole, there's maybe a little bit more of a focus on doing what I can to get on base than there might be in the No. 4 or 5 hole, where there are probably more opportunities to try to drive in runs.”

Marte, in his first five starts at cleanup, had an OBP of .409, which trumped the .299 he maintained in 21 starts at the No. 5 spot. His batting average as the cleanup man, .368, also compared favorably to his .241 mark as the fifth batter.

Testing Molina

Once inadvisable, attempting to steal bases against Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina now strikes the Pirates as a reasonable proposition.

Molina, in his 12th year in the majors, is the National League's active leader in caught-stealing rate at 44.6 percent. But through Friday, he had thrown out just four of 11 runners this season — 36 percent, which is 9 percent above the league average but his poorest mark since 2009.

Molina threw out Polanco as the right fielder tried to swipe second base Saturday.

Polanco and Marte stole bases on Molina in the Pirates' first series of the season against the Cardinals.

“I think he lost some weight, trying to get in better shape,” said Hurdle. “The fact that (teams) had run (11) times and stolen seven is a number that you've never read behind his name before, ever. ... We do believe we have a better window of opportunity than we've had in the past.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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