Reporting Colin Dunlap
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I’m ready to roll with Charlie Morton.
Ready to hand him the ball in this pennant race in a game of profound significance.
How many of you — if you are honest with yourself — ever thought someone would say that all that long ago?
I will take it another step: By the end of the season, when the Pirates reach the postseason — and at this point it seems like a “when” and not an “if” — Morton just might be manager Clint Hurdle’s No. 2 starter behind Francisco Liriano.
Certainly A.J. Burnett will have something to say about that, but, so too will Morton.
As it stands, Morton’s recent form has been stellar. He has won three of his last five starts, won five times since July 22 and saw his ERA drop from 4.07 to 3.14 during the month of August.
Quite simply, he’s pitching spot-on at the right time.
Then there is this — Morton is a guy who generally allows the bullpen to kick their feet up to a large degree. In his six starts in August, he never got in trouble to where he needed to be bailed out before successfully completing six innings and, by nature of his ability to pound that low part of the zone, he hasn’t yielded a home run in his past seven starts.
I don’t know about you, but when you crunch all that together, that equates to exactly the kind of pitcher I want standing on the rubber for a team in a pennant race — and in a playoff series — who has had a bit of a hard time scoring runs.
Why the success of late?
Why is Morton throwing that baseball so well after bouncing back and jumping in the rotation in mid-June following a career beset by a hip surgery in October 2011 and then Tommy John in June 2012?
“You’d like to think that [players] have the same level of confidence every time out there,” Hurdle said. “But, pitchers, hitters, they get on a roll. Confidence does build. … Charlie is in a very good place right now, standing over the rubber, getting the signs and delivering pitches.”
No time was that more apparent than on Wednesday night at PNC Park, when Morton put together 6.2 strong innings to help the Pirates to their 77th win of the season, a 7-1 victory against the Brewers. The right-hander gave up just five hits, didn’t allow an earned run and made Milwaukee hitters pound the baseball into the dirt with 18 ground balls.
Ground Chuck, indeed.
Many will remember Aug. 28 of this charmed 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates season as the night of a million Marlon Byrd puns — the night he made his maiden voyage for the club, hit about 1,000 fowl balls in an at-bat before, later on, nesting a home run in the bushes.
No question, Byrd’s effort was top-fight; he deserves a feather in his cap (OK, I’m done now, promise) — but the win in a middle game of a key series against Milwaukee signified, more so to me, the continued progression of Morton. More important, it also indicated how much this club can trust him through the final 30 games and, potentially, beyond.
It also signified that, if A.J. Burnett hiccups a bit down the stretch, Morton could leapfrog him in the rotation in a playoff series.
Such a notion didn’t seem possible all that long ago.
“I think just getting a better feel for the zone,” Morton said of his recent run of accomplishment. “Getting a better feel for pitching again. Getting more comfortable.”
As he’s doing that, he’s found himself near the top of the rotation for a team fighting for the National League Central title.
Crazy as it might have sounded not that long ago, Charlie Morton might also find himself the No. 2 starter for this club come playoff time.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Check out his bio here.