Morton confident in progress since June surgery


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The previous time Charlie Morton faced a batter before Monday, he forced the Cincinnati Reds' Zack Cozart to ground into a forceout. That ended a two-run fourth inning, a four-inning start and Morton's 2012 season.

Morton did not pitch again after that May 29 start. He had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in June and spent the winter in rehabilitation. Monday, he faced hitters for the first time, throwing 12 fastballs from behind a protective screen after a 30-pitch bullpen session.

"It wasn't as unfamiliar as I expected it to be," Morton said. "Once I got out there, I looked in and saw the guys standing in the box, it just wasn't weird."

Morton had the surgery June 14, and his rehabilitation schedule should have him ready to return around the same time this season. Monday marked his largest workload yet.

"I'm entirely confident I could go out there and get people out based on what I have right now," he said. "That doesn't mean that I'll be able to bounce back in a day or two and go and do what I would normally do, because that has yet to be seen."

Morton is one of several Pirates pitchers working their way back from various injuries. Francisco Liriano, who broke his right humerus Christmas Day, started throwing off the slope of the mound, but not the rubber, on Monday, he said. Pitching coach Ray Searage said Liriano is not ready to throw bullpen sessions yet.

"There was a little bit more atrophy in the right shoulder due to the big heavy cast he had to carry around for so long to help the arm heal, that we've got to build up the strength in his right arm before we can really, truly begin to push an active conditioning and/or a return to pitch progression," general manager Neal Huntington said.

Liriano said he worked with 3-pound weights to improve the range of motion in his right arm, which he lifted above his head to demonstrate the progress.

"I feel really good," he said. "My arm feels normal now. I just want to get it going."

The amount of time Liriano spends on the disabled list because of his right arm will affect how much of a possible $3.75 million he will earn this season in addition to his $1 million base salary.

Liriano could return shortly before Morton, crowding the rotation.

"Our hope is that we're going to have some very challenging decisions to make as they're ready to go," Huntington said.

Biceps tightness slowed Jeff Karstens this spring, but he is closer to returning than Liriano or Morton. Karstens threw a light side session Monday without issue and is scheduled to pitch Wednesday in a minor league game.

Huntington said Karstens still could start the season on the roster instead of the disabled list due to the time left in spring training

"Most of our guys are getting to the 65-, 70-, 75-pitch mark. Jeff's a tick behind that," Huntington said. "Barring any hiccups, he's on pace to do what he needs to do to be ready to go in our rotation."

A day off after opening day means the Pirates won't need a fifth starter until April 7, so Karstens has an extra week.

Jose Contreras, who had Tommy John surgery around the time Morton did, will soon throw all of his pitches in a bullpen session, Searage said. The Pirates want to add to Contreras' throwing program, which was sporadic before he joined the club.

"It was two days, and then two days off, and then two days," Searage said. "We want to get him at least five to six days out of seven throwing long toss, so this way he is throwing almost every day."

Locke struggles in close win

The Baltimore Orioles made hard contact against starter Jeff Locke, who allowed two runs on eight hits in 31/3 innings in a 4-3 Pirates win Monday at McKechnie Field.

"Obviously left some balls up," Locke said. "That's going to hurt you at times.

"When the ball was down, it had good action on it. When it was up, it just flattened out."

Phil Irwin struck out seven in 32/3 innings of relief.

"The breaking ball had late bite, good depth," manager Clint Hurdle said of Irwin's performance. "We were able to stretch him out, over 50 pitches. Great ratio of first-pitch strikes, ahead in the count, working down in the zone."

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter: @BrinkPG. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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