HOUSTON -- Good Charlie or bad Charlie?
Well, one could call this the somewhere-in-between version, which, really, represented a healthy step forward for Charlie Morton, despite the Pirates' 9-1 hammering by the Houston Astros last night at Minute Maid Park.
He had been mostly erratic since that unforgettable 10-run inning in Chicago last month, conceding too many hits, too many walks and far too many deep counts. But he limited Houston to three runs and six hits and, despite a rough early going, seemed generally more in control.
Not dominant, but...
"I thought he threw a lot better," manager John Russell said. "His command was better, there were some swings and misses in there, and he left when it was a 3-1 game. That's what you want from your starter, to keep you in the game."
• Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
• Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (11-9, 3.97) vs. RHP Brian Moehler (8-10, 5.10).
• Key matchup: Houston's Miguel Tejada is 9 for 13 with a double off Ohlendorf, Lance Berkman 6 for 11 with a home run and three doubles.
• Of note: The Pirates have given up at least one first-inning run in 10 of their past 11 games. In that span, they have been outscored in the first, 22-1.
Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog.
"It was OK," Morton said. "It did feel better to be throwing the ball better, but I fell behind more guys than I'd like, and those two-out hits killed me."
There were three strikeouts and 50 pitches out of 89 for strikes, including four swings and misses. There also were two walks, and he fell behind 13 of 23 batters. But, as Morton mentioned, the inability to finish an inning was paramount: Lance Berkman's home run came off a flat full-count changeup in the first and, in the third, Kazuo Matsui's single and Berkman's double all came after two outs and spotted Houston a 3-0 lead.
For the Pirates as a whole, the free fall continued: This marked 13 losses in 14 games, 13 consecutive road losses and, in the larger scope, an 11-32 record since the trades of the final week of July.
But these final few weeks figure to be far more about individual progress, and Morton's recovery ranks at or near the top of the list: He is expected to be in the rotation next year -- though he is no lock -- in large part because of the exceptional stuff he showed shortly after his arrival in the Nate McLouth trade in late May.
The coaching staff had him skip a start leading into this one, allowing time for pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and bullpen coach Luis Dorante to work on a minor mechanical -- actually, more of a mental -- adjustment.
"Everything about my body needs to be moving through toward the plate, right over the top," Morton explained. "That way, my regular fastball is at 95 instead of 91. And, if I have that, everything else feeds off it."
"It's a matter of refining the delivery, not changing it," Russell said. "We're out to simplify things more than anything."
And is he getting there?
"Getting there," Morton said.
Andy LaRoche's ninth home run, off Bud Norris in the fifth, pulled the Pirates within 3-1, but the offense was stunted from there, and Houston made that moot with six unearned runs in the seventh.
Joel Hanrahan, charged with just three earned runs over his past 25 games, started it off by giving up a soft double and two walks around a strikeout.
The first of those walks should have brought a called third strike when J.R. Towles clearly went too far in trying to check his swing on a full count, but home plate umpire Derryl Cousins ruled differently, and first base umpire Jim Joyce backed him on appeal.
Hanrahan was visibly steamed and, afterward, several players fumed about the call.
"He absolutely swung," Hanrahan said.
Did Russell think so, too?
"I did, and it kind of changed that whole inning," he said. "But you can't change the call. Nothing you can do about it."
Russell summoned Jesse Chavez with the bases loaded, leading into the next mishap: Catcher Ryan Doumit made a fine block of a pitch in the dirt, and Hunter Pence was hung up between third and home. But Doumit, after throwing to third failed to catch LaRoche's hard, high return throw and was charged with an error that might have gone either way.
A Michael Bourn sacrifice fly, Matsui's RBI double and Carlos Lee's monster three-run home run to center made it 9-1.
"That play could have changed the inning, too," Russell said.
"I should have caught it," Doumit said.
In the third, Doumit was felled by a foul tip off the left kneecap but stayed in the game. Russell said he expected the knee "might stiffen" by today.
To avoid 100 losses, the Pirates must go 9-14 the rest of the way.