Collier: Morton central to the plot

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As promised, the top baseball minds on the North Side convened Wednesday to see if they could determine which way the refreshing wind blows in this thoroughly unpredictable summer.

Field manager Clint Hurdle came away from that upbeat seminar very well-pleased, which means if little else that upper management has no intention of selling the Pirates out from under him as July turns to August.

You would think that much would be obvious, but there have been a lot of cruel, cruel summers around here in the post-Bananarama era.

"We had an exercise today where we went over what we have coming back incrementally," Hurdle said some hours before the Houston Astros derailed a three-game Pirates winning streak with a 8-2 smackdown. "And we went over some external options."

Those would presumably include the potential addition of someone with a power bat, preferably someone whose current employers are so sick of him they're willing to eat salary like a Coney Island hot dog glutton. But first the Pirates look like they're just going to hope against hope for the great internalist answer, Pedro Alvarez. They're hoping he can be installed in this low energy offense by July 15, and hoping even that batted balls will fly on long majestic arcs forthwith. Hoping they can get him around the bases without his quad taking him back to the disabled list.

"We want to push this thing forward, with the ultimate goal of becoming a world championship organization," Hurdle said. "Neal does such a good job of explaining things. We just put everything up on a big board and went over what any move would mean. We just all wanted to understand, and I've always been someone who says, 'Yes, I understand, now repeat it to me.'

"It was a good productive day, and we'll revisit everything before the [All-Star] break."

Already working with a lineup that totters like a Jenga tower in spite of itself, Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington got a rather startling look at just how tenuous their inclusion in the National League Central race might be, courtesy of Charlie Morton in the sixth inning.

Between two inning-combusting Pirate errors and his exit five hitters later, Morton subjected his fielders to a sustained volley of line drives that arrived without warning.

The Astros nearly hit for the cycle in the span of about six minutes, which seemed like the opportune moment to point out that Morton hasn't gotten through a sixth inning in more than a month.

Hurdle called the five-run inning a hiccup, but it was more of a, well, never mind. I'll respect your breakfast.

"My velocity wasn't there [in that inning]," Morton said after his record fell to 7-5 [he started 5-1]. "I don't really feel like I took a step back."

I don't really feel like that either, but in that critical freeze frame he looked too much like someone the Pirates' master plan might again have to marginalize. There's no reason Morton should have lost his velocity at that point, at least none related to the omnipresent pitch count, which was just 68 when the inning started.

So of all the variables facing Hurdle and Huntington and their baseball brain trust in this pivotal month, how variable (wobbly) is Morton really?

For five innings last night, he was again Good Time Charlie, throwing grounder after grounder, striking out six (all swinging), retiring nine batters in a row in one stretch and making Andrew McCutchen's RBI rope in the first inning look as if it might just hold up.

Then Chase d'Arnaud threw Michael Bourn's leadoff grounder in the sixth high to first for an error, McCutchen dribbled Angel Sanchez's double to right center to allow an extra base, and Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and Clint Barmes took batting practice all over Morton's canvas.

The Pirates had the fifth-best record in the major leagues since May 18 coming into play last night, but it includes the unsettling fact that they've gone 27-19 in that stretch with little help from Morton. He got a complete game victory that night in Cincinnati, but is 2-4 since with an ERA of 5.36.

Twenty-four hours ago, Morton had to be considered a crucial component of this team's established strength, namely its stunningly reliable pitching. Now the balance of his summer is closer to speculation, or at least closer to the reappearance of Brad Lincoln.

So again the thick plottens, but at least there's a compelling narrative.

Gene Collier: .


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