Morton gets little support in Pirates' 8-1 loss

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For once, Charlie Morton had a lousy line, exited early, and it genuinely was not his fault that the Pirates were pounded by the Washington Nationals, 8-1, this afternoon at PNC Park.

Not when the defense committed three errors and other miscues.

Not when the offense faced an opposing starter with numbers as ugly as Morton's and mustered next to nothing.

And certainly not when Morton might have pitched, within his own grim context, as well as at any point in 2010.

His line showed six runs and eight hits over 3 2/3 innings, which should look painfully familiar, and he fell to 1-11 with a 9.66 ERA. But four of those runs were unearned, the Nationals' five-run rally that chased him could have been quashed if not for an error by first baseman Garrett Jones, and he did just about everything else the coaching staff had sought, notably ramping up the fastballs -- 57 of 76 -- and going after batters.

The manager liked what he saw.

"Charlie looked better, a little more aggressive," John Russell said. "He's still not where we'd like to get him, but I think it was a step in the right direction. As the game went along, you saw his velocity start to creep up, too, and that's encouraging."

The catcher liked it, as well.

"Charlie never gave in," Chris Snyder said. "The runs he gave up, the hits, were ground balls. He was aggressive, he had good composure, and I think the best thing he can do with a game like this is put the results aside and take away the fact that he pitched aggressively and gave himself a lot of opportunities to have better results."

Morton stopped well short of saying he liked it, but neither was he tormenting himself.

"I know I'd like to see better results, but I think I did a better job of pitching," Morton said. "My tempo was better, the location better ... it was different than last time."

In his previous start, Aug. 29 in Milwaukee, he was rocked for eight runs and nine hits over 3 1/3 innings and repeatedly shook off catcher Ryan Doumit's calls for fastballs.

How often was Snyder shaken off?

"Twice, maybe," Snyder recalled.

It is not easy to cast Morton as unlucky, given that his numbers are among the worst for any starter in Major League Baseball over the past century. Still, management has made a litany of excuses for Morton, whether citing arcane statistics to highlight positives, counting the feet between hits allowed and nearby defenders, or even assigning a personal catcher, as Russell did Sunday in choosing Snyder over Doumit.

That said, there was a legitimate lack of luck in this one.

Morton coasted through the first three innings in limiting Washington to a run, a couple hits, a couple walks. Adam Dunn led off the fourth with a home run into the bleachers, but, again, no big deal. It was Dunn's 34th, and an impressive stroke the other way.

Then ...

Roger Bernadina dropped a single into left, and Michael Morse did likewise into right.

Those prompted visits to the mound from, in order, second baseman Neil Walker, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and pitching coach Ray Searage, in a scene that made it look as if the Pirates were panicking.

Cedeno clarified: "I just went there to tell Charlie that I could see he was pitching well. We all saw that, and we wanted him to know."

Adam Kennedy then rolled a grounder that Jones could have turned into a 3-6-3 double play. Instead, with Morse pausing on the basepath to block his view, Jones had it clang off his glove, and a run scored.

"The ball really came up on Garrett," Russell said.

Wilson Ramos was next, scorching a ball just to Cedeno's right for a single to load the bases with nobody out. It would have been quite the stab for Cedeno, but some in the restless crowd of 18,057 booed.

Morton's mindset?

"I think, early in the year, situations like that were a lot more frustrating than now," he said. "Now, having gone through that ..."

He laughed slightly.

"Awkwardly, I guess, there was a familiarity. But I didn't really feel overwhelmed."

It showed: Morton got mound opponent Jason Marquis to bounce into a forceout at home, then fanned Nyjer Morgan with high heat for a second out.

But Ian Desmond's high chopper into shallow right brought one run despite a valiant pursuit by Walker, and Ryan Zimmerman's poke up the middle brought two more. Morton exited with a 6-0 deficit.

"Obviously, I would like to have gotten out of that," Morton said. "But it's changed. It's definitely changed."

His approach to adversity, he meant.

General manager Neal Huntington reiterated Sunday that Morton will remain in the rotation.

"Charlie has good enough stuff that he should be a major-league player," Huntington said. "We do want to win games in September, but at the same time, you have to find out about players. With Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens hurt, there's opportunity here to do that. As frustrating as it is with Charlie at times, we've just got to continue to work with him."

Washington's Marquis entered with a 1-7 record and 8.13 ERA, but the Pirates scored once in his six innings, on Pedro Alvarez's first home run since Aug. 7 and five other hits.

Among the few bright spots was that Walker went 3 for 5 to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, matching the team's season high.

Also, Jose Tabata avoided injury despite being hit on the left thumb by a Marquis pitch in the first inning. Tabata stayed in the game and said later of the thumb, "It's fine," explaining that the contact was not flush. Russell said it would be examined again today.

The franchise's worst season in a half-century saw the record fall to 45-91, nine losses shy of 100.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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