Charlie Morton avoided mistakes for three innings. He avoided issues of any kind, really, in an impeccable nine-batter stretch to start Sunday’s game. Those unforced errors found him in his final two innings of work and made the difference.
Morton handed the San Diego Padres the lead in a four-run fifth inning in the Pirates’ 8-2 loss at PNC Park. The Pirates lost two of three to the Padres, who won their 14th consecutive series in Pittsburgh and have won 16 of their past 19 games at PNC Park. As the Pirates begin a three-week stretch against playoff contenders, they trail the first-place Milwaukee Brewers by 21⁄2 games in the National League Central.
Morton (5-11) allowed five runs and five hits in five innings. He walked a batter, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch, and all three mistakes led to a run. The Pirates offense did the same thing as the previous two games — score in the first inning and never again — and struggled against starter Tyson Ross and three relievers.
Morton flattened the Padres for three innings. Not one ball left the infield and he struck out four.
“The sinker played really early,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was down, it was running away, they were hooking it to the right side of the infield.”
No Padre reached base until Yangervis Solarte walked with one out in the fourth. A groundout moved Solarte to second and the Padres’ first hit, a single by Yonder Alonso, scored a run.
Morton escaped that inning but faltered in the fifth. Abraham Almonte and Rene Rivera singled on the first pitch of their at-bats to start the inning. Ike Davis retired the lead runner at third on Ross’ sacrifice attempt and Alexi Amarista flied out, but Morton hit Solarte with an 0-2 curveball to load the bases.
“Get a guy two outs, 0-2, I guess I just tried to do too much with it and I pulled it,” Morton said.
Seth Smith promptly cleared them. Morton fell behind in the count, 2-0, and tried a sinker on the outer half of the plate. Smith drove it into the left-field corner, where it bounced off the wall and away from Travis Snider, resulting in a three-run triple. Smith scored on a wild pitch and the Padres led, 5-2.
Stolmy Pimentel allowed a run and Jeanmar Gomez two more.
Starling Marte led off the bottom of the first with a single for the Pirates and Gregory Polanco homered to right, his sixth of the season.
“Slider down the middle and I was aggressive,” Polanco said.
Ross (11-10) allowed nothing else. He finished six innings and allowed six hits and two walks.
“Our first three hits were off sliders up and spinning in the zone,” Hurdle said. “After that his fastball command peaked up, his slider came into play, getting us on top of balls.”
Padres starters Ross, Ian Kennedy and Eric Stults combined to pitch 181⁄3 innings in the series and allow four earned runs.
“They have the skills and the tools and the pitches to get some things done,” Hurdle said. “We’d like to get more.”
The pitchers Sunday hit four batters. The final one, a 96 mph fastball on the first pitch from Pimentel off Smith’s leg, caused home-plate umpire Chris Conroy to warn both benches.
Pirates pitchers hit Tommy Medica twice the night before, including Jared Hughes’ fastball to the back of the head that forced Medica from the game. Ross hit Marte and Josh Harrison, both with fastballs up and in. Morton also hit a batter, but did so with a curveball off the foot of the switch-hitting Solarte, who was batting left-handed.
The tests the Pirates face — namely, can they score in more than three innings in a series while short-handed, and get pitching performances to keep them close — only become more difficult from here.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 10, 2014 12:00 AM