HOUSTON -- A much different Charlie Morton surfaced yesterday.
This one was different than the one everyone saw in his previous outing, when he had his way with the first-place Florida Marlins, tossing that one-hit wonder over six scorching Miami innings last week.
Then again, a much different Wandy Rodriguez also emerged yesterday -- not the Houston Astros' pitcher hovering around the .500 mark, but one who was thoroughly dominant as he changed speeds masterfully, worked the strike zone in and out, puzzled Pirates hitters from the outset and from the top of the order to the very bottom.
When all meshed together, it ended with the Pirates absorbing a 5-0 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park as Rodriguez tossed the second complete-game shutout of his career, giving up five hits and matching a career high with 11 strikeouts.
He closed strong, facing one batter over the minimum in the final four innings. All five hits the left-hander yielded were singles with the lone multihit inning coming in the second.
"He threw the ball really well, located his fastball and his breaking ball was very effective," Pirates manager John Russell said of Rodriguez. "He was just very good."
Very good because he held steadfast to one of pitching's sturdiest pillars -- Rodriguez changed speeds in a remarkably effective fashion.
Rodriguez would work an early count fastball in the low 90s, force Pirates hitters into a hole and then drop a curveball on them that dived fast and hard, travelling in the mid-70s.
"He was throwing strikes, he was getting ahead in the count the whole time, from the very first inning," said Ramon Vazquez, who started for the Pirates at second base and went 1 for 2 with a single and strikeout. "He had that breaking ball working. He was jumping ahead with the fastball and using that breaking ball out of the strike zone, in the dirt, wherever."
The Pirates could not resist, as every player in the lineup with the exception of the two LaRoche brothers -- third baseman Andy and first baseman Adam -- struck out at least once.
Conversely, Morton was ineffective and his day was cut short after four innings, when he was lifted after pushing the Pirates into a 5-0 hole as Houston's hitters were 10 for 21 against him.
All five runs Morton gave up were earned -- two in the third; three in the fourth -- and the Astros had four two-out RBIs, hit safely on 5 of 11 chances with runners in scoring position and drilled four extra-base hits.
So, why was this outing so much different than that one against the Marlins last week?
"The game plan [yesterday] was to try to stay away from most guys with sinkers," Morton said. "Some of it was pitch selection and a lot of it was location. It is just the way it goes. A couple of their hits, I thought I made good pitches, but the rest of them were just balls that I didn't put where I wanted them."
A microcosm of Morton's day came in a fourth-inning at-bat by Houston first baseman Lance Berkman. With two out and two on, Morton fell behind in the count, 3-1, then grooved a thigh-high fastball on the inner half of the plate that Berkman calmly turned around and mashed into right field to turn a 3-0 game into a 5-0 game.
Berkman finished 2 for 4 with two doubles and two RBIs as one of five Astros to have multiple hits in the game.
"He gave up some hits," Russell said of Morton. "A couple balls were elevated, but they did a nice job of hitting. It is just one of those games where they got to him, I still really liked his stuff, and he should be fine."
Perhaps, he will be. But, yesterday, Morton wasn't nearly as good as he was in Florida last week or as good as the Astros' pitcher.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1459. First Published July 9, 2009 4:00 AM