CINCINNATI -- A year ago, the Pirates' management would remove one bad start from Charlie Morton's statistics to paint a positive picture.
That turned into just a bad inning.
Or a bad pitch.
Then, in an interview a week ago, general manager Neal Huntington cited a series of intricate metrics to make his case that Morton was "about 5 feet of ground balls away" from having pitched well all month.
Well, such measurements were being made in far greater distances in the Pirates' 8-2 loss to Cincinnati tonight at Great American Ball Park, as Morton was bombarded yet again for seven runs and eight hits in just two innings, including back-to-back home runs by the Reds' Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce.
Total distance between those two shots: 782 feet.
Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:35 p.m., Turner Field.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Season series: Atlanta, 2-1.
Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-4, 4.47) vs. RHP Derek Lowe (6-4, 5.30).
Key matchup: The Braves' Chipper Jones owns Duke, 11 for 24 with a home run and three doubles.
Of note: In losing two of three to Atlanta last weekend at PNC Park, the Pirates stranded a remarkable 33 runners while scoring just five runs.
After the game, manager John Russell met with Morton in his office for nearly a half-hour, but it was decided by the team's management as a whole that he would neither be demoted nor removed from the rotation.
"We talked," Russell said of his meeting with Morton. "He's worked really hard and, unfortunately, tonight was a night where nothing really paid off for him. We'll re-evaluate it and see where we are. It was a step back, and we've got to see what we can do to go forward again."
Will Morton stay in the rotation?
"As of now, yeah."
Could he ever go to the bullpen?
"No. He's going to be a starter, no matter what."
And is he healthy?
"Yeah, he's had some shoulder fatigue the past couple of starts, but he's fighting through it. He hasn't felt pain, and he seemed to throw the ball pretty firmly tonight. That was a good sign."
Russell pointed to Morton's previous four starts in which he reached the sixth inning three times, though still with a 5.32 ERA.
"You'd hate to have one start negate the progress he's been making. We'll see."
Morton's situation is not just about the team at this point: Management runs the real risk of hurting the player's psyche and wasting a potentially valuable arm by continuing to send him back to the mound. Morton has an option left and could be assigned to Class AAA Indianapolis without having to clear waivers.
Moreover, top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln is seen internally as being no more than a start or two away from his first promotion. He is scheduled to pitch for Indianapolis tonight in Charlotte, N.C.
Morton saw the same backward step that Russell did.
"I feel like things had gotten better," Morton said. "This one ... it's frustrating."
He was asked if he feels his job is in jeopardy.
"I've kind of felt that for a while now. It's not one particular start where I felt, 'OK, I've got to step up and do the job now.' It's been my goal every outing. The reality is, those first four starts were horrendous. Any progress I did make over the past month or so has been overshadowed by how horrible everything was at the beginning of the year. It's just a difficult situation to be in."
He also expressed awareness that Lincoln or someone else could supplant him.
"We have plenty of talent in the system. Every time I've had a bad start, I know there are other options."
And the shoulder?
"It's OK. I don't think it's a big issue."
Huntington, who did not make the trip to Cincinnati and has been away from the major-league team for most of the past 18 days, was not available for comment. No other representative from the baseball operations front office made the trip, either, in a rarity.
By now, Morton's numbers have that familiarly numbing feel: He is 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA, both figures the worst of any starter in Major League Baseball, the latter by nearly three full runs. Opponents are batting .342, highest in the majors, with 12 home runs, second-most. And the team has been outscored, 74-17, when he pitches.
The killer: When he does not pitch, the Pirates are a winning team, 19-18.
Count Cincinnati shortstop Orlando Cabrera among those incredulous at Morton's record.
"I'm really surprised because, to me, he's the best pitcher on that staff," Cabrera said. "He's got the best stuff. What is he, 1-8?"
Cabrera was told it was 1-9.
Morton's latest lacked any suspense: The Reds batted around both innings, beginning with a walk, a single, an out, Rolen's three-run blast to left, Bruce's blast to right, a single and ... one gets the idea.
Andy LaRoche's ugly throwing error robbed Morton of a potentially helpful double play in the second -- LaRoche flung the ball into right field -- but Morton fared little better in the rest of that one and, with a pitch count of 68, Russell pulled him.
LaRoche could have gone home on that play, too, as Cabrera had broken off third and the Pirates could ill afford to concede a run. But Cabrera hesitated, and LaRoche tried for the double play, a move endorsed by Russell.
"If Cabrera had broken clean, I'd have gone that way," LaRoche said.
Meanwhile, the offense continued to muster close to zero. Aki Iwamura's pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh -- on the exact one-month anniversary of his previous RBI -- snapped the team's scoreless streak at 15 innings. Johnny Cueto, who pitched a one-hit shutout May 11 at PNC Park, put up six more zeroes in this one, striking out nine.
The lone positives: Jeff Clement, continuing to look more comfortable at the plate, stroked two singles to the opposite field, then a double to right to extend a 5-for-10 run and creep above the Mendoza Line at .202. Ronny Cedeno, in his first game at leadoff, doubled twice and walked. And Jeff Karstens again brought good long relief, with four innings and one run.
Russell sounded cautiously heartened by Clement's modest run.
"He's swinging the bat a lot better, doing a lot of good things," Russell said.
Cincinnati took three of four in the series.