MIAMI -- Surely, not many will be sad to see the Pirates' season end this afternoon, but count Charlie Morton as a strong exception.
He struck out a career-high nine, most of anyone on the staff this summer, and held the Florida Marlins to two runs over six innings, though the Pirates still wound up losing, 2-0, Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium. That marked a fifth consecutive decent start to close it out, something borderline unthinkable back in May, when he was 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA and sent to the minors with shoulders slumped.
"For a while now, I've been wishing it could go on," Morton said. "Those first two months felt like two years, but this has been so much more enjoyable. I know I can go out there and not just compete but succeed. That's what makes it tough to just walk away from here tonight."
Morton's final line is abominable, at 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA, but there has been a clear upgrade since his return in late August: In seven starts, he went 1-3 with a 5.66 ERA. Within the past six, it was a 4.26 ERA.
Nothing spectacular there, obviously, but the numbers do not necessarily paint the difference in confidence, on display again here. He challenged hitters relentlessly with his fastball, fooled them with the curve as needed and looked completely in command.
Game: Pirates vs. Florida Marlins, 1:10 p.m., Sun Life Stadium.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Brian Burres (4-4, 5.01) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (12-12, 3.62).
Key matchup: Burres can become the only one of the Pirates' 11 starters with a winning record.
Of note: Delwyn Young's 72 pinch-hit plate appearances rank second in Major League Baseball to Milwaukee's Joe Inglett, and, after his ninth-inning single Saturday night, are tied for second in franchise history behind John Cangelosi's 83 in 1989 and alongside Lee Mazzilli's 72 in 1985.
"You can just see it in him now," manager John Russell said. "He's good when he pitches off his fastball, just like most power pitchers are, and he had good velocity, good angle ... it was just a really start. I'm proud of him, with what he's been through and how he's come back."
Florida scored the game's only runs in the fourth on Mike Stanton's Baltimore-chop RBI single and Chad Tracy's sacrifice fly. Even there, though, Morton had bases loaded and one out, and limited the damage to a lucky single and long out, never straying from the attacking mindset.
"My fastball felt pretty good, so I went with it," Morton said. "Mostly, it was just that and the curveball."
Morton will get his wish for an extended season, in a way, as he will pitch for La Romana in the Dominican Winter League.
The Pirates fell to 57-104, same record as the 1985 team. Another loss in the finale this afternoon would bring the franchise's highest loss total since the 1952 team went 42-112.
Reliever Joel Hanrahan achieved a milestone in the eighth with his 100th strikeout, becoming the fourth reliever in all of Major League Baseball this year. And he had to earn it: Florida had runners at second and third with one out, and he fanned Dan Uggla and Gaby Sanchez, the latter pounded with seven sliders in a row.
Hanrahan's bullpen mates leaped and clapped with the third strike.
Thinking K all the way?
"What else do you think I was going for right there?" he replied, grinning. "We've got one game left."
Of the achievement: "Obviously, guys have had a lot more strikeouts than this, but it's a nice number to look at when this is done."
Hanrahan is two strikeouts behind starter Paul Maholm for the staff lead.
In the ninth, the Pirates had the potential tying runs in scoring position with two outs for pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit, but he looked at a Leo Nunez curve for a third strike.
In theory, anyway, the offense had a golden chance when Florida scratched starter Alex Sanabia -- stiff elbow -- and went with an all-bullpen game, but only six hits were mustered off six pitchers.
Two hitting streaks ended, Jose Tabata's at 14 games, Pedro Alvarez's at 11, as the rookies finally cooled by going a combined 0 for 7.
Shortstop Ronny Cedeno's errorless streak ended, too, at one game. He had committed errors in five consecutive games before a clean performance Friday, but he could not handle Sanchez's bouncer in the sixth.
One to go.