Morton solid for Curve in win

Charlie Morton’s rapid recovery from Tommy John surgery is great news for the now first-place Pirates, and he took a step closer to rejoining the big league club Sunday with the Curve.

Morton pitched six strong innings in a rehab start on a cold, drizzly day at Peoples Natural Gas Field, giving up one run on three hits with four strikeouts and one walk. He originally was scheduled to go five innings or 80 pitches, but he was allowed to go back out for the sixth after throwing only 58 pitches through five.

“The third inning on I started to locate and get better feel,” Morton said after picking up the win in the Curve’s 3-1 victory over Erie before 3,223 fans.

Morton almost didn’t make it out of the second inning, and that type of short outing would have been a bit of a setback. He ran into trouble and gave up a run, and just as action started to heat up in the Curve bullpen, Morton escaped the inning by throwing one of his good sinkers and getting a double play.

“The double play allowed him to be able to get his work in,” said Curve pitching coach Stan Kyles, who had just gone to the mound for a visit. “He goes too many pitches, we’ve got to take him out of the ballgame.”

Morton allowed a leadoff double to Tyler Collins and RBI single to James Robbins to start the second. He got a popout, then walked Jamie Johnson, prompting the Curve to get a reliever up in the bullpen.

“I just told him to slow down,” Kyles said of his mound visit. “He’s such a perfectionist, he was trying to get everything done too quick. So I just told him to slow down a little bit, nothing major and just take his time, and he made his own adjustments.”

Morton has one of the best sinkers in the game, and he threw one to get Luis Castillo to ground into the double play. The pitcher breezed after that, with only one runner reaching from the third through the sixth, and that was on an error.

He threw 70 pitches (48 strikes) in his six innings, then went inside and threw 20 more pitches in the batting cage to finish off his work day and said he felt good afterward.

Morton had Tommy John surgery June 14 and was making just his third rehab start and second with the Curve.

“At this point, when you’re going five-plus and you’re throwing 75-plus pitches, you’ve got to get more in the more competitive phase of pitching, as opposed to just going out there and making sure your arm feels good and everything’s working,” Morton said.

He focused on all of his mechanical work down in Florida, so now he’s focusing on being as competitive as possible in his rehab starts.

It used to take pitchers up to a year and a half to get back from Tommy John surgery, but it’s been only about 10 months for Morton.

“I know some guys that came back in 15 months, and then they started to come back in 12 months and that was fast,” Morton said. “Then guys started coming back in like 11, even nine months just pitching in games.

“There’s a limit on what the body can do, how the body can heal physiologically and how quickly can your body adapt to the change, how can it adapt to the procedure,” the pitcher added.

The question for Morton now is when he will be ready to rejoin the Pirates. The team is playing well, but No. 4 starter Jonathan Sanchez has struggled (0-3, 12.71 ERA).

Morton still might be a few starts away from being ready to rejoin the big league club, but going six strong innings in Double-A means he’s at least getting close.

“There are a lot of factors that go into my return to the big leagues; it’s not just on me,” he said. “So if I get up to 100 pitches going seven, eight, nine [innings] in games, there’s really nowhere I can go but keep doing that. But hopefully everybody in Pittsburgh is pitching well. That’s the optimal scenario and they don’t need me. But if they need me, my goal is obviously to be ready.”

Hearing he needs Tommy John surgery has always been about as bad as it gets for a pitcher, and Morton said it was frustrating not being able to do much after the surgery. But even though he’s still rehabbing, there’s a big difference now that he’s doing it in games.

“This is fun,” Morton said. “This is the rewarding experience. This is what we work to get back to, so this is the good part.”

Game recap

Key player: Pirates RHP Charlie Morton allowed one run on three hits with four strikeouts and one walk in six innings in a rehab start for the Curve.

Key play: A big inning-ending double play in the second helped Morton avoid piling up pitches and being lifted early.

Key stat: Morton had Tommy John surgery June 14 but returned to minor league game action in only 10 months.

How they scored

Bottom 1st: Bottom 1st: Curry singled, Lambo walked, both scored on Tejeda double (2-0).

Top 2nd: Collins doubled, scored on Robbins single (2-1).

Bottom 8th: Vasquez solo homer (3-1).