SAN FRANCISCO -- Recovery from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery does not end when a pitcher returns to the mound. It's a process, and one that Charlie Morton is still going through.
"I think I'm still a little hesitant on some curveballs," Morton said after his most recent start in which he held the San Francisco Giants to one run in 7 2/3 innings. "It's really hard to trust it fully. Overall, my elbow's felt really, really good on curveballs. It's just like my sinker, it's a feel pitch as well."
The improved sensations in Morton's reconstructed right elbow have corresponded with better performances. In his past four starts, he has a 2.28 ERA in 27 2/3 innings. He has allowed two or fewer runs in each of those starts and hasn't given up a home run since July 22.
Considering Morton's past 15 months, it's understandable that he would experience hesitation with his curveball. In the winter, while still rehabilitating after surgery, Morton said of his 2012 arsenal: "Four-seam, changeup. Curveball that hurt and a sinker that hurt. Am I really doing anything for anybody?"
Now, Morton is starting to regain the touch needed not only on his curve but his two-seam sinking fastball, his main weapon and the pitch that induces so many ground balls.
"I have less odd sensations in my arm, better feel, and that allows me to feel it more in my fingers," Morton said. "It sounds weird, but it really is a feel pitch, even though I try to let it go."
Morton also understands that merely throwing the sinker isn't enough of a trump card. He has to pitch, and that starts with getting ahead in the count.
"It's not a free pass," he said. "Just getting ground balls is not necessarily going to equate to me getting free outs. That's the game plan, that's what I go into every game trying to do is get the ball on the ground."
Morton's success with the sinker in recent outings resulted in part because of the way he went right after opposing batters. That approach lets the pitch's movement do the work and forces hitters to make solid contact, which is not easy to do.
"I love playing behind a guy that's going to attack, especially with his stuff," shortstop Clint Barmes said. "It's tough to barrel a ball that way. He gets a lot of ground balls. If he's attacking the zone and not letting them get into too many hitter's counts, good things are going to happen."
Attacking hitters requires more than just throwing strikes. Morton said increasing confidence in his pitches helps him go after batters rather than try to nibble.
"I think mentally, I think I'm a little more comfortable on the mound," he said. "I'm a little more comfortable with the fact that I can execute. It opens up a little bit of window for me to be more aggressive."
The elbow issue plagued Morton in 2012. He pitched through a torn labrum in his left hip in 2011 and had surgery to repair it after the season. He is now pitching with a healthy hip, a healthy elbow and a lower arm slot for the first time.
"I do think Charlie understands that he's got some skills," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think the day that he just really takes ownership of them and lets them play out -- the stuff is hard to hit. He's hard to square up on certain nights."
Morton will continue to regain his feel Wednesday night, when he starts against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park.
"I feel like I'm making strides," he said. "There's progress."pirates
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 27, 2013 4:00 AM