After spending a whole winter wondering if Charlie Morton’s talent would ever translate into results and a spring being tantalized by a great results in games that didn’t mean anything, I think I was almost looking forward to Charlie Morton’s first start of 2011 with more anticipation than Opening Day. Just what is the guy capable of?
Tonight, he showed why scouts rave about his “stuff” and why people like me were so slow to write him off last year. The Cardinals couldn’t do anything with his sinker tonight but pound it into the ground for ground out after ground out. He got 15 groundouts and just one flyout (by the pitcher, Kyle Lohse) and even though he had five walks tonight (at times it looked like his pitches were just breaking too much), he managed to keep his cool every time a runner got on base and hold the Cards to one run through six innings. The five walks and only two strikeouts indicate that he wasn’t perfect tonight, but if there was any doubt that Ray Searage did the right thing by instituting Morton’s sinker and having him rely heavily on it, those doubts should be out the window. As soon as I finish the recap, I’m going to put some Morton graphs up for the morning, but for now let’s hit the rest of the game.
There was a lot of talk about the Pirates’ offense before the season and how that was the part of the club with the most upside in 2011. The sixth inning tonight was a great example of just what these guys are capable of. Kyle Lohse had been dominating the Bucs in much the same way that Morton was dominating the Cards by keeping the ball down in the zone and keeping the Pirates from making solid contact when Ronny Cedeno lead off the sixth with (another!) opposite field single. Charlie Morton bunted him to second, which allowed Jose Tabata to work Lohse for a walk. Then in the blink of an eye, Neil Walker had doubled both runners in and Andrew McCutchen cleaned the bases off with a home run that required an impressive amount of brute strength from such a small guy. The game turned from 1-0 to 4-1 before Lohse or anyone could even process what happened.
Those four runs turned out to be enough, but just barely. Evan Meek had trouble again, but since I gave flack to Clint Hurdle over the weekend for bullpen management I’ll be happy to applaud the job he did with his pitchers tonight. He could’ve tried to squeeze a seventh inning out of Morton, but when to Jose Veras instead and then he yanked Meek at the first sign of trouble tonight. He also showed a ton of faith in leaning on rookie Michael Crotta to clean up Meek’s mess in the eighth. Crotta as the sinkerballer is absolutely the right guy to bring into a 4-2 game with runners on first and third with no outs, but since he’d only faced three hitters before tonight it would’ve been understandable if Hurdle had gone to someone else. Crotta came through, though, getting the double play ball that he needed (muffed by Ronny Cedeno, who would’ve gotten no one out had Lance Berkman not been on first base) and then adding a strikeout for good measure. Joel Hanrahan was awesome again in nailing down the four-out save (and it was another nice move by Hurdle to bring him in in the eight).
It was a heck of a game and maybe the most encouraging one to this point of the season. Morton pitched well, the offense came through when it needed to, and besides Meek the bullpen slammed the door. The Pirates won 17 of 82 road games in 2010 and now they’ve won three of four in 2011. It’s way too early to say anything, but it’d be hard to ask for a better start.