Morton out to salt away starting spot

Aggressiveness key for right-hander


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Charlie Morton is making a strong pitch this spring to rejoin the Pirates' starting rotation.

That may surprise some, considering the 27-year-old right-hander was one of the worst pitchers statistically in the majors a year ago with a 2-12 record and a hefty 7.57 ERA.

But, as Morton and the other pitchers in camp have come to realize, anything is possible with the pitching-starved Pirates, who desperately are trying to find five starters and seven relievers.

"I feel like I'm pitching well enough this spring to be in the rotation, but it's not my call," Morton said. "I know I can pitch in the majors. I've done it before."

Pitching coach Ray Searage said Morton is in the running to earn a starting job after last year's disastrous start that eventually earned him a July demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis.

"What happened with Charlie last year is last year," he said. "What we're trying to do is move forward. When you start looking back, it catches up with you."

Morton, 0-0 this spring with a 2.25 ERA in three games, will throw a simulated game today at Pirate City.

"In his two starts, he has thrown 25 pitches in three innings and 40 pitches in three innings," Searage said. "We want to get him up in the 60-70 pitch range to get him some more work, and then get him right back out there."

Morton has allowed five hits this spring, including a solo home run, and two runs in eight innings. He has struck out three and walked one.

"Charlie's got as good a stuff as we have in camp," general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday before the Pirates' 9-4 Grapefruit League victory against the Boston Red Sox before a crowd of 6,602, the largest in McKechnie Field history. "His intensity and aggressiveness have been a positive.

"And when Charlie's aggressive and attacks the strike zone with all his pitches, he's going to be a very good major league pitcher. It's just a matter of him doing it on a consistent basis. And he's done that thus far in camp."

Morton said the key to his success this spring has been his command.

"For the most part, I think I've been pretty aggressive," Morton said. "I mean, there's some things I'm working on. But I'm just glad to get out there and compete.

"Fastball command is huge. Keeping the ball down. Doing everything the same coming out of my hand, making sure I have the same arm angle on every pitch. Trying to be aggressive and consistent. Staying aggressive."

Searage said he is "cautiously optimistic" that Morton's four-seam fastball, sinker and curveball have him on the comeback trail.

Morton was supposed to compete for the fifth spot in the starting rotation with left-hander Scott Olsen, who was signed as a free agent in December.

Olsen, slowed by a left hamstring injury, is scheduled to make his first appearance of the spring today against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota.

Huntington said the oft-injured Olsen, who was 37-49 with a 4.86 ERA in stints with the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals, still could earn a spot in the starting rotation.

"If he continues to make strides, there is enough time," Huntington said. "There's not a lot of room for setback or margin for error. But he is continuing to progress and we go forward.

"If he's not ready, that's a decision we make at the end of spring training."

Morton, 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, was 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA after his first 10 starts last season with the Pirates, who finished 2010 with the worst staff ERA in the majors at 5.00.

The Pirates were 2-15 in Morton's 17 starts.

"I failed last year, but I know that I'm better because of it," Morton said. "I've already been to the place where I wondered what I'd do with my life."

Morton, a third-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2002, ended up finishing 2010 with the Pirates after being recalled Aug. 28 from Indianapolis. He is 11-29 with a 5.98 ERA in 51 major league games, including 50 starts.

"In the big leagues, everything is magnified," Morton said. "There's no escape from failure."

Injury update

Like Olsen, left-hander Joe Beimel (sore left forearm) is expected to make his first appearance of the spring today against the Orioles. ... Catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit (strained oblique) received treatment Sunday. ... Kevin Hart (right shoulder) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session without issue. ... James McDonald (discomfort left side) received treatment, but had a wrap around his waist. Asked how he was doing, McDonald said, "I'm good." ... Catcher Chris Snyder (back) has not played since Wednesday.

Buried treasure

• The Pirates tagged Boston ace Josh Beckett (0-2) for five hits and five runs in four-plus innings in front of their first home sellout of the spring. Beckett struck out five and walked two and also allowed solo homers to John Bowker and Ronny Cedeno. The Pirates had 12 hits, including two each from Pedro Alvarez and Lyle Overbay, who also drove in two runs each. "It's always good to face a guy like that in spring training," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's a good challenge. It's a good opportunity for us to see a guy that's done some things in the game."

• Jose Tabata got the start in center field, giving Andrew McCutchen the day off. Tabata, usually the left fielder, started nine games in center for the Pirates last season. "I like it out there," he said. "I hadn't been out there in a long time."

• Pirates starter Brad Lincoln worked three innings against Boston. He gave up two hits and two runs. He struck out three and walked two.


Ron Musselman: rmusselman@post-gazette.com .


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