Huntington says Pirates will stick by Morris ... for now

Beleaguered starter roughed up in 10-4 loss to Florida

The Pirates' options with Matt Morris all are plenty unattractive.

Buy him out?

That would prevent further scenes like the four-inning, eight-run meltdown that marked the 10-4 loss to the Florida Marlins last night at PNC Park, but it also would require writing a check for roughly $10 million with zero return. Every penny of Morris' $10,037,283 salary, as well as the $1 million buyout of his 2009 option, is guaranteed.

Banish him to the bullpen?

To do that, the replacement must represent a clear upgrade to a rotation where everyone other than Ian Snell has pitched right about at Morris' level during this six-game losing streak. Moreover, the best starter at Class AAA Indianapolis in the early going is John Van Benschoten, who was 0-7 with the parent club last season. And the prime candidate to move out of the bullpen is Phil Dumatrait, whose only six career starts resulted in a 15.00 ERA with the Cincinnati Reds last season.

Of course, there also is the option of continuing to run Morris out there.

  • Game: Pirates vs. Florida Marlins, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
  • TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (0-2, 5.28) vs. RHP Ricky Nolasco (1-1, 6.46).
  • Key matchup: Maholm vs. Mike Jacobs, who clubbed a grand slam off him April 5 in Miami -- a big part of the Marlins' 7-4 victory -- and has five other home runs.
  • Of note: No team in Major League Baseball has a better success rate for steals than the Marlins, with 13 of 14. That includes the current streak of eight in a row.`

Which is the one the Pirates will choose.

For now.

"As long as we feel there's still an ability in there to get people out, we're going to continue to let Matt be a starting pitcher for us," general manager Neal Huntington said last night. "If we get to the point where we just don't think he can compete, then we obviously have to make a move at that point."

Are they getting close?

"At this point, we're not all that close, which I know the fans don't want to hear. We're not close to deciding that Matt is done, because that's essentially what you'd be deciding. Maybe he could go somewhere else and click. We want to make sure we exhaust all opportunities right here."

Huntington cited Morris' extensive between-starts work with pitching coach Jeff Andrews, which focused on creating greater arm speed through the delivery.

"He's worked hard with Jeff to make some adjustments, and those aren't going to come overnight," Huntington said. "We want to give it a chance."

Still, Morris is 33, and there are signs even beyond his 0-3 record, 9.15 ERA and .380 opponents' average that an irreversible decline could be at hand. The most glaring is that his fastball, which he threw at a good-enough 89 mph just two years ago, now seldom hits 85 mph. That makes impeccable command a must, a challenge for any pitcher.

To be sure, no such command was in place for Morris last night: He fell behind 13 of 22 batters and, largely as a result, gave up nine hits -- including two home runs -- and a walk.

"He just has to get his fastball to hit his spots," manager John Russell said. "That's the biggest thing."

What about the velocity?

"Their pitcher was throwing 84-86," Russell said of Florida's Mark Hendrickson, who lasted eight innings and was charged with three earned runs. "The difference is where you put it."

Morris, a former 20-game winner who finished third in the 2001 Cy Young Award balloting, sounded almost as disillusioned as disappointed after this one.

"As difficult as it is to watch, it's 10 times more difficult to deal with," he said.

He recalled feeling more optimistic in the afternoon than at any point in the season, partly because of his work with Andrews, partly because of a 20-minute pep talk Russell gave all players in the clubhouse shortly before the game.

"It's funny because I had a lot of faith in today, a lot of positive thoughts, a lot of letting the past go," Morris said. "To get out on that rubber and ... I mean, that's possibly one of the worst games I've ever pitched. And being in this situation, that really magnifies it."

He blamed command, too, but was more general than that.

"I believe the pitches are in me. I also believe that, if you execute one, you should execute a majority of them. It's difficult to say. Ronny Paulino and I had a game plan. I did all the things I used to do to have success. And ... it's just not there."

He was asked if he is happy with his velocity.

"It's hard to be happy. I don't believe velocity should matter. But the inconsistency of it is something bigger than the velocity."

Florida struck for four in the second inning, half that on Hanley Ramirez's two-run liner into the left-field bleachers off a hanging curve.

The Pirates drew within 4-2 in the bottom half on two-out RBI singles by Paulino and Morris, but that was wiped away in the Marlins' next at-bat: Jeremy Hermida was hit by a pitch to lead off the third, and Josh Willingham lofted a fastball -- just 83 mph, even on PNC's generous radar gun -- into the bleachers to make it 6-2.

Morris exited with the Pirates down, 8-2, and was booed for most of his final two innings by a paid crowd of 8,444 -- third-smallest in the ballpark's history -- that looked to be about a quarter of that.

"It's tremendously hard when you look up after three or four innings and the other team has eight," Russell said. "It shuts down a lot of things you want to do."

That has become a theme of late: The Pirates have given up double-digit runs in the past three games, a mind-numbing total of 36.

Number of starters to top five innings during the six-game losing streak: One, Snell.

The starters' season ERA: 6.28, highest in Major League Baseball.

Average number of innings per start: 5 1/3.

As Huntington put it, "It's not like we've got one weak link in the rotation right now."

The solitary bright spot: Nate McLouth's hitting streak was extended to 19 when he led off the eighth with a single. He is the only player in the majors to hit safely in all of his team's games, but he has a long way to go to set the record for a season-opening streak: Willie Keeler's was 44 in 1897 with the Baltimore Orioles.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at . First Published April 22, 2008 4:00 AM


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