Pitching preceded confidence for Pirates' Morton
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SAN DIEGO -- Charlie Morton's mouth opened, but no words came out.
It was May 27 in Cincinnati, and he had just been bombarded -- again -- for seven runs in two innings. He was summoned into the office of John Russell, then the Pirates' manager, and he sat on a couch along with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
"What do you want us to do, Charlie?" Kerrigan asked.
Kerrigan meant whether or not Morton wished to go to the minors, every Major League Baseball player's nightmare. And yet, Morton could not mount even a meager defense.
"Honestly, I was so dazed, I didn't answer the question at all."
Down the hall, longtime Cincinnati reporter Hal McCoy mentioned to Orlando Cabrera, the Reds' shortstop, that Morton now had a 9.35 ERA.
"I'm really surprised because, to me, he's the best pitcher on that staff," Cabrera said. "What is he, 1-8?"
McCoy corrected Cabrera. It was 1-9.
"That's unbelievable," Cabrera came back.
It was the worst opening 10 starts for any pitcher in the majors since 2000, when a youngster in Toronto struggled no less with a 10.64 ERA.
Kid named Roy Halladay.
The next day, the Pirates placed Morton on the disabled list with what they called "right shoulder fatigue."
It was more like mental fatigue.
"You never saw Charlie smiling anymore," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "He was always worried about next start, like, 'How am I going to fix this?' His closet was cluttered with a bunch of junk."
"It was a miserable time," Morton said. "It was disappointing and embarrassing. I knew people were relying on me, and I knew I wasn't doing my job. I was really embarrassed."
Morton had been general manager Neal Huntington's prized acquisition in the trading of popular outfielder Nate McLouth the previous year. And Morton would flash all the talent Huntington had seen before the trade, but none of the results for himself or the team. At the time of the demotion, the Pirates were 19-18 in games he did not pitch, 1-9 when he did.
Now, Morton was being sent to the spring facility in Bradenton, Fla. There would be no competition, no work off the mound, no booing. Just Morton, some recent draft picks and two instructors who would try to set him right.
One was pitching coordinator Jim Benedict, who would go on to revamp Morton's delivery.
The other was Bernie Holliday. The team's media guide describes Holliday as the mental conditioning coordinator, and his background includes teaching sports psychology principles to the military.
When word leaked that Morton was seeing a psychologist, it might have sounded serious.
"Ha! No, it was nothing like that," Morton recalled. "It's not like he put me down on a couch, and we started going over my whole life."
Holliday's message, according to Morton: "Know what you do well, recognize it, and make that the foundation of your thinking. He was trying to teach me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I wasn't messed up. ... I think the biggest thing with Bernie was that we learned to respect each other. I was completely honest with him, and he never flinched."
In his idle time in Bradenton, Morton spoke by phone with his family and fiancee, Cindy Weil. He did some reading and played video games. But mostly, being a singer and expert guitarist -- he performed to rave reviews from fans and teammates at PirateFest two springs ago -- he dived into his music.
His preference was Ryan Bingham's melancholy, acoustic theme from the movie "Crazy Heart."
This ain't no place for the weary kind
And this ain't no place to lose your mind
This ain't no place to fall behind
Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try
"The song didn't save my life or anything," Morton said with a small laugh, "but the more I listened to it, the more I identified with it."
Answers would not come quickly. After 10 days in Bradenton, Morton was assigned to Class AAA Indianapolis, and he pitched poorly.
That, by his measure, was the low point.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "That was a level I ... I guess you can say I dominated. It was one thing to struggle in the majors, but going back there and having that happen, I was like, 'What's going on?' "
One early June afternoon in Scranton, Pa., Morton gave up two runs in the first inning, then moped back to the Indianapolis dugout. Dean Treanor, the team's military-mannered pitching coach, tore into him.
"There are times, with people like Charlie, when you have to give them a hug," Treanor said. "And there are times you need to do something else."
Treanor challenged Morton if he was serious about pitching, serious about getting back to the majors.
"Dean really gave it to me," Morton said. "I mean, other people had done that, so I'm not sure why that was different. Maybe it's because I trust Dean. But I just made up my mind: That was it."
Morton befriended another pitcher, Mike Crotta, now in the Pirates' bullpen. The two roomed together, trained together, even sat in the stands together on days they were not pitching for Indianapolis.
"We were supposed to be charting pitches, but we really just talked, mostly about baseball," Crotta said. "For everything that happened to him, Charlie's mind never got off baseball. And I never saw him get too down. He really just wanted to find a way to get back."
The style returned with the smile: Morton put up a 1.50 ERA in August and earned his way back to Pittsburgh by month's end. His seven starts for the Pirates were "OK," to use Morton's term, in that they were less than disastrous, 1-3 with a 5.45 ERA and a nine-strikeout season finale in Miami.
Morton is back to being fun, quirky and engaging. He stands tall in the clubhouse. He has the fortitude to pitch through trouble as he did Sunday in Denver. And, yes, he even shakes off pitch calls, a right that had been stripped away last summer.
But those who deal with him most closely will stress that the confidence did not come first.
"No, it's success that breeds confidence," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "Last year was a nightmare for Charlie. You can be the most confident guy in the world, but a year like that eats at you. Look at him now. He's the type of guy who's so talented that, if he gets a little swagger, he could absolutely take off."
As in right away?
"I remember catching Charlie's games last year and thinking, 'Man, his stuff is way too good to be getting hit like this.' It's electric. It moves, dives, darts ... put it all together, and he's a top-of-the-rotation talent."
"Watch film on Roy Halladay."
Halladay, Philadelphia's brilliant two-time Cy Young Award winner, pitched the worst season-opening 50 innings for any starter in major league history with Toronto in 2000. He could throw 95 mph, but he was terribly inconsistent, and his fastballs were easy to read, easy to hit.
So, he was sent back to Class A Dunedin, where his delivery was dropped from directly overhand to three-quarters. That looked more natural, provided better sinker action and brought immediate success.
Halladay declined interview requests from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to discuss Morton, but the one player who knows both of them best sees more than a similar story line.
"Charlie's the spitting image," said Pirates first baseman Lyle Overbay, formerly Halladay's teammate in Toronto. "And, to be honest, he's got better stuff than Roy does. Roy has a better idea where his ball is going because he's been doing it a lot longer. And the sinker comes out of Charlie's hand way better."
Continued similarities are the goal.
After Morton started throwing three-quarters in the spring, Searage and Benedict compiled a video of Halladay circa 2005-06, when he began to truly shine. Their deliveries and sinkers have a striking resemblance, but the point was to illustrate how Halladay's head barely moves.
"Roy's head is extremely quiet," Benedict said. "Everything rotates around it."
So, what the Pirates have in Morton is a pitcher with an arsenal a video-game simulation might reject as unrealistic ...
His fastball still is clocked regularly at 95 mph. Only now, it comes with less stress.
His cut fastballs remain effective.
His curveball, maintaining its "rotation like a buzz saw," according to Searage, now arrives diagonally.
He has two changeups, a circle change and split change, although Searage wants Morton to pick one soon.
But it is the sinker, the one pitch Morton was forbidden to throw last year because it was so ineffective, that has benefited the most from going three-quarters.
"My old sinker was really a screwball, really inconsistent," Morton said. "Too much wrist action."
The grip Crotta taught him last summer helped, allowing Morton to stay "on top of the ball," and it meshed perfectly with the three-quarters delivery because the wrist hardly twists at all.
"It feels easy," Morton said. "But it's also a little inconsistent. Hence, the walks."
Oh, yeah, the walks.
Morton has many positive statistics this season, with the 3-1 record, 3.52 ERA, a complete game and .245 opponents' batting average. And nothing stands out like his 63 ground-ball outs, No. 1 in the majors.
That comes from the sinker, which he is throwing about half the time, and it comes with all kinds of benefits: He now has a fallback pitch in jams. He can pitch deeper into games through ground balls. He can keep hitters from sitting on the fastball.
But it also comes, for now, with those 23 walks, second most in the majors.
"There are times Charlie still wants to hit a spot," Benedict said. "Now, you don't have to. If you have a good sink, a hitter thinks he's on the ball, he hits the top of it and grounds out. You can still pitch down as an area, not right at Doumit's glove. But these are baby steps."
Searage laughed off the walks.
"I hear people talking about his walks, and my reaction is, 'Are you serious?' " Searage said. "When he gets it, when he starts learning what to do with the sinker, with the first-pitch strikes, pounding the zone ... look out. It will. But this has only been going on since March."
As opposed to Halladay, who has had it going on for about a decade.
Morton confessed to an alternate reason for enjoying those Halladay video sessions.
"For me, it was fun just because of how great he is and because he went through a lot of my kind of struggles," he said. "I knew he was the best, and that's what I wanted to be."
"It's what I want now, more than ever."
First Published May 4, 2011 12:00 am