Morton, Pirates' bats ground Astros

Morton, Pirates' bats ground Astros

Morton, Pirates' bats ground Astros
PITTSBURGH -- Clint Hurdle was saying a few days ago that there are three types of people in the world: problem detectors, problem identifiers and problem solvers.

Guess we know which type Charlie Morton is.

Six days after being confused and panicked by the absence of his money sinker, leaving him vulnerable to long balls and unable to induce his usual share of grounders, Morton showcased the results of his sideline research by making the Houston Astros eat dirt, figuratively.

Hurling the first six innings of the Bucs' 5-2 victory on Saturday at PNC Park, Morton elicited 14 of his 18 outs on the ground.

"I thought the sinker was better today than last time," Morton said, referring to a Sunday start in which the Reds airlifted him for five runs, including a pair of homers. "I felt the ball ... wasn't doing what I wanted it to do.

"I just worked on some minor things in my delivery -- like staying a little more on my backside, then having that little extra turn. I'm more rotational than up and down."

Sounds complicated? Then just take it from Hurdle: "Charlie was able to right the ship. Seventeen balls on the ground, 14 for outs. It was real good to see."

So were the pillars of the supporting offense: Andrew McCutchen had four hits, something he hadn't done since, oh, Tuesday, and Pedro Alvarez got a hit in the cleanup spot, something he hadn't done since, well, 2010.

The Bucs put the game away with a sixth-inning rally highlighted by a double that was Alvarez's first hit in 21 at-bats in the cleanup spot. Two runs later scored on Clint Barmes' sacrifice fly and a wild pitch that made it 5-2.

After Morton allowed one earned run in six innings, Chris Resop and lefty Tony Watson took the game down to replacement closer Juan Cruz. Cruz worked the ninth to pick up his third save in the absence of grieving Joel Hanrahan, on the Bereavement List after the death of his grandmother.

Even the hits Morton was allowing were worm-killers. There wasn't a ball hit out of the infield on the fly until Jose Altuve -- the 12th batter to face him -- lined to right in the third. And even that worked to Morton's advantage: Having taken off from first base, Jordan Schafer was easily doubled up on Yamaico Navarro's throw.

The first hit to reach the grass on the fly was Schafer's fifth-inning double, which did result in a run, scoring ex-Bucs catcher Chris Snyder, who had reached on a two-base error by Alvarez and moved to third on an infield grounder.

Jose Tabata immediately got that run back, with his solo homer into the right-field porch in the bottom of the inning, making it 3-1. Much to Houston starter J.A. Happ's astonishment, evidently.

"I don't even know if Tabata knew where the ball was," Happ said. "I think everybody was [surprised that the ball got out]. I don't have an explanation for how that ball got out, but it did and it hurt."

From there, Morton faced potential disaster: The Astros began the sixth with three straight hits to load the bases. Disaster blinked: Justin Maxwell grounded to short to deliver one run, but another grounder to short by Matt Downs became an inning-ending double play.

"To me, that was the biggest ground ball, his last and the one that ended the sixth inning," Hurdle said. "Charlie was good tonight, and we needed that."

An extra day of rest likely helped the veteran, with everyone's start getting deferred a day by Monday's off-day. He also benefited from the renewed confidence to just throw his go-to pitch, and trust its movement.

As Hurdle explained, pitchers usually fall into one of two traps when losing that good sinker: Either they're throwing it too hard "through the sink," or are trying to be too fine with it, not giving the sink itself a chance to do its work.

Morton had a hard time classifying his problem.

"I feel like I've had starts where I threw as hard as I could and the ball was sinking -- and other starts where I tried to manipulate the ball into sinking more, and it sunk less," Morton said. "So it could be just a start-to-start thing."

Okay, so that rules Morton out of the problem identifier group. He still came up with the right solution to give the Bucs a chance for a winning mark this homestand, when they take a 4-4 record into Sunday's finale.

The Bucs got a first-inning run for the first time since since April 28 -- a stretch of 13 games -- when Tabata led off with a triple and was promptly cashed in by Neil Walker's sacrifice fly.

"That made everyone in the dugout smile," Hurdle nodded. "Leadoff triple ... we haven't always cashed those in."

In fact, the Bucs had squandered one of those just on Friday night -- when Tabata didn't score after leading off with a three-bagger in the fourth inning of what became a 1-0 loss.

Given the rarity of the first punch, it was imperative for Morton to live up to the shut-down inning's name. He did, but hardly in a breeze, needing 27 pitches against the bottom of the Astros' lineup to get out of it with two men on base.

McCutchen gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead with a solo homer in the third, the second of his four hits. The first three of those had come off the left-handed Happ, improving McCutchen's season average against southpaws to .452. The fourth, a seventh-inning single off righty reliever David Carpenter, raised McCutchen's overall average to .342.

There aren't many areas in which the Pirates are perfect, but taking on left-handed starters at PNC Park is one of them: The decision over Happ made them 4-0, with another Houston southpaw (Wandy Rodriguez) on-deck for Sunday.

McCutchen may have a hard time falling asleep.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.