Among the many ways in which Charlie Morton misfired in giving up those 10 runs in a single inning a week ago in Chicago was in offering this postgame assessment: "There was nothing to take from today."
That, evidently, was wrong.
Morton reported to Wrigley Field early the next morning, visibly unmoved and saying all the right things: He would need to become more aggressive, trust his stuff and, as he put it, "pitch like Zach Duke."
Garrett Jones and Lastings Milledge homered in the Pirates' 5-2 carving of Cincinnati last night before 22,725 at PNC Park, but there can be little doubt that the most important facet of this fourth consecutive victory was Morton's 6 1/3 seamless innings, in which he held the Reds to two runs on six hits.
- Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (9-11, 3.42) vs. RHP Justin Lehr (2-0, 2.42).
- Key matchup: Duke has owned Cincinnati's cleanup hitter, Brandon Phillips, holding him to one hit in 14 at-bats, and he was caught stealing the one time he reached.
- Of note: The Reds have allowed 100 first-inning runs, most in Major League Baseball.
That was a long ways off from that 17-2 rout by the Cubs, when he became the franchise's first starting pitcher since 1890 tagged for 10 in his first inning.
And, for a 25-year-old with a history of wavering confidence, that had to count.
"Yeah, it felt good," Morton said. "The biggest thing was the mental aspect of it and just going back out there. But I wasn't thinking about what happened. Really, I just wanted to shake it off."
Manager John Russell had seen signs, from Morton's off-field cool to effective side sessions with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan that focused, simply, on strikes, strikes and more strikes. As a result, a few hours before first pitch yesterday, Russell predicted, "I think Charlie's going to pitch really well."
"Charlie did fine," Russell said. "And I thought this was good for him. I knew he was anxious to get back out there. He worked awfully hard between starts. It's a very good step, especially after what happened with the last outing."
The victory was Morton's first since July 18, following four consecutive losses that had dropped his record to 2-6. His stuff was not as sizzling as it can be, nor was his command -- he struck out three, walked three -- but he threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of 27 batters, and, in a less tangible sense, never seemed out of control.
That included the pivotal fourth inning, right after the Pirates had a 3-1 lead on Jones' three-run home run in their previous at-bat: The Reds put the first two men aboard, and Kerrigan went to the mound.
Usually, Kerrigan discusses little more than the strategy to the next hitter, but this was different.
"We just put up some runs and, the next inning, you've got to put up a zero," Morton said. "That's what Joe told me: 'You've got to buckle down.' I've more than once let that inning get away."
Two groundouts and a lineout. No one scored.
Jones' home run was impressive in several ways: One, it was his 14th in just 43 games, and that total leads all Major League Baseball rookies. Two, it came off Micah Owings' tight 1-2 cutter, and Jones had to shorten his arms just to make contact, never mind crushing it several rows above the Clemente Wall.
Oh, and one other way: It came with men on base, after he had been batting .097 with runners in scoring position.
"The best part," Jones said, grinning.
The Pirates padded the lead to 4-1 on Milledge's solo shot in the fourth, a liner inside the left foul pole and his second home run in three games.
"I'm starting to feel good," Milledge said.
Andrew McCutchen tripled and scored on Delwyn Young's sacrifice fly in the fifth.
Morton was chased by back-to-back Cincinnati singles in the seventh, but Jesse Chavez got the final two outs, including Young's diving stab at second to rob Joey Votto of an RBI single.
Closer Matt Capps came on in the ninth for his 23rd save and retired Votto, representing the tying run, on a game-ending groundout.
Capps, too, was most impressed with Morton.
"It's huge for all of us to see what Charlie did," Capps said. "With his experience level, you want to see him go right back out there and trust the great stuff he has. He didn't lose any confidence."
The four-game winning streak is the Pirates' first since June 24-27, and a victory tonight would match the season high of five, set May 16-20 against the Colorado Rockies and Washington Nationals.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 22, 2009 4:00 AM