Charlie Morton will take the ball this afternoon to pitch in a postseason game for the first time in his career. About one year ago, he was picking up a baseball for the first time in months.
Morton's Game 4 start today marks his most significant outing since having Tommy John surgery in June 2011, which kept him off the mound and out of the game for almost a year.
His health, and the Pirates' deep rotation in spring training, put in jeopardy whether Morton would ever pitch for the Pirates again.
But his rehabilitation, and injuries to others, have put this sinkerball pitcher in this position.
That he has been effective enough to warrant a spot in the postseason rotation is a testament to his hard work, that of his surgeons and that of team doctors.
"My goal was to get ready as soon as possible," Morton said Sunday. "I knew it wasn't realistic to expect to be able to be ready to come back at the beginning of the year."
Morton was healthy enough to start pitching in extended spring training games in April, and after a minor shoulder injury, he joined the active roster in June. He made 20 starts in the regular season, going 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA.
And he improved as the year went on, little by little gaining a better feel on the mound. In his final 10 starts of the regular season, Morton posted a 2.69 ERA, inducing 1.62 ground balls for every fly ball he allowed.
All that for a player who said it still feels a little strange throwing the ball.
"I'm not sure if my arm is necessarily stronger," Morton said. "It's starting to go back to I feel like I'm headed toward normalcy again where my arm feels normal."
The Cardinals faced Morton three times this season and twice roughed him up. They scored five runs off him twice, though he left his most recent outing against the Cardinals after injuring his left foot.
The foot, he said Sunday, is fine. His struggles against St. Louis are more a result of his execution than anything else.
"There are things that I'm going to take from it and I'm going to learn from," he said. "But I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, because I had a couple of bad games against them."
Mercer vs. Barmes
The Pirates lineup has been relatively consistent over the past couple of weeks, which hasn't been a trademark of the team since Clint Hurdle arrived in time for the 2011 season.
But one position -- shortstop -- has been the wild card. Clint Barmes has seen the majority of starts since Jordy Mercer's inopportune error Sept. 20 against the Cincinnati Reds, but Mercer started over Barmes in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
Barmes was back in the starting lineup Sunday for Game 3, but the Pirates could very well turn to Mercer often should they advance in the playoffs. Barmes is the better defender, but Mercer is a more potent hitter.
The coaching staff will factor in offensive matchups, spray charts from opposing hitters and a variety of other factors.
"There's no secret sauce, but we're going to keep an eye be mindful of a few things," Hurdle said. "That's directing our choice of shortstop."
Mum on Game 5
Hurdle again was unwilling Sunday to say who would start a potential Game 5.
"I'll make an announcement when we have to make an announcement," Hurdle said.
Either Game 1 starter A.J. Burnett or Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole could take the mound Wednesday in St. Louis if the game is necessary. Burnett struggled in his outing, but Cole cruised.
There is an 80 percent chance of rain today, according to AccuWeather.com, but current forecasts call for rain to clear by early afternoon. Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki said the team expects Game 4 to be played as scheduled today. The teams have a scheduled travel day Tuesday, and Major League Baseball will make any decision about cancelation and rescheduling.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published October 7, 2013 4:00 AM