Starting Morton pays off for Bucs vs. Red Sox

Righty hurls five scoreless innings for Pirates, who hold a WC spot

Starting Morton pays off for Bucs vs. Red Sox

PITTSBURGH -- It's the proverbial substance of a baseball team on a roll. The players cannot make a wrong move. The manager cannot make the wrong decision. Clint Hurdle, who has had that feeling of infallibility once before, is getting it again.

In an important game, the first of The Final 13, Hurdle decided to give the ball on Tuesday to a pitcher who had not started in 31 days due to injury, and Charlie Morton responded with five shutout innings as the Bucs upended Boston, 4-0, at PNC Park.

"I didn't really have any expectations," Morton said following his first start since Aug. 15, as he stepped from simulated games into the stretch-drive cauldron. "Other than, go out and give it what I got."

He gave the Bucs their 80th win, moving them 10 games above .500 for the first time this season.

With its ninth win in 11 games, Pittsburgh also converted the first chapter of a golden opportunity being presented in this late-season Interleague series: It plays the Red Sox while the Brewers and Cardinals clash in St. Louis, guaranteeing the Bucs of gaining ground on one of their division competitors with each win. The Pirates moved to within 2 1/2 games of the Cards in the National League Central, and they remained 1 1/2 games up on the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot after Milwaukee topped St. Louis on Tuesday night.

The Pirates prefer to have Morton's icy demeanor, veteran savvy and sinker for the pursuit, and hopefully the relish, of October. So he got the ball, and a chance to show what he could still do with it, sports hernia or not.

"That's kind of why we made the decision we made," said Hurdle, of inserting Morton back into the rotation at the expense of reliable Vance Worley. "We feel we got a guy there, we needed to see when he could go and what he could bring. We didn't want to wait any longer, we wanted to have at least something to base a decision on.

"I thought his stuff was very consistent. The sinker played well, a lot of first-pitch strikes ... a very, very professional outing."

Morton led off the Bucs' fifth shutout of the season. The only individual effort among those was on July 28 in San Francisco, a likely Wild Card opponent, by … Worley.

All the support Morton got, and needed, for his first win since July 2 was a two-run homer in the second by Russell Martin off Boston starter Anthony Ranaudo. Starling Marte also connected, in the sixth, for a solo shot that chased Ranaudo.

The bullpen, from Bobby LaFromboise through John Holdzkom to Mark Melancon, safeguarded Morton's first win over an American League team since his very first career victory, on June 14, 2008, as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

The decision to hand the ball to Morton, who had dealt with the sports hernia for 2 1/2 months before finally going on the DL on Aug. 17, puzzled many. Worley had maintained his consistent performance right through his latest effort, on Wednesday in Philadelphia. One had grown to know what to expect from Worley.

But the Pirates' brain trust, from Hurdle to general manager Neal Huntington, had an encouraging sense of what Morton could bring after watching the ball come out of his hand during recent workouts.

"He deserves a lot of credit for the focus he kept while he was down, the work he did on the side, the sim games, all of it," Hurdle said. "He challenged himself, he pushed himself. It's as focused as I've ever seen a guy in sim games."

After the game, Morton wore pretty much the same solemn expression he'd worn following his sideline sessions. Which may have been only appropriate, since he described his physical comfort during Tuesday's game as "pretty much the same as when I've thrown for the past month."

Hernias are popularly associated with some heavy lifting and, while that is not medically accurate, Morton certainly carried a big weight Tuesday night.

His match with Ranaudo was a duel of contrasts. While Ranaudo kept setting down the Bucs in order, Morton kept keeping order, in constant trouble. In five innings, he stranded four Red Sox in scoring position, being most tenacious after Boston led off both the fourth and fifth innings with doubles.

All told, in fact, five of the Red Sox's seven hits were doubles.

"[We had] a number of opportunities. We created opportunities for ourselves throughout the ballgame tonight. We just couldn't cash in," Boston manager John Farrell said.

"Mechanically, I think I was more sound out of the stretch than I'd been previously," Morton said. "I felt good, confident when I had guys on. Like it wasn't really a big deal."

Bottom line, Morton blanked the Red Sox for five frames on four hits, walking two and striking out six.

And he had a lead because Martin followed a leadoff walk of Neil Walker with a home run he could have hit by rote: In his two seasons with the Yankees, he hit eight homers and drove in 19 runs against Boston.

Martin's homer also gave the Pirates eight players in double figures, for the first time since 2007. Ike Davis, the former Mets first baseman who has hit nine of his 10 homers since joining the Bucs, could yet make it nine.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com 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.