video thumbnail

PHI@PIT: Morton hurls seven frames of two-run ball

PITTSBURGH -- To conclude that the Pirates' turnaround is complete would be premature. In fact, any analysis would be, given that 105 games remain on the schedule.

But perhaps it is no longer much of a stretch to consider this club capable of making a run not only past respectability, but also toward that elusive mark of .500.

The volume of games remaining would caution that it's still too early to begin that debate. And yet, the manner in which the Pirates have outdueled the Phillies in two consecutive games at PNC Park would suggest such conversation is absolutely warranted.

The largest crowd in the ballpark's history watched the Pirates take down the National League's best team again on Saturday night, this time by a 6-3 score. The 39,441 on hand, many clad in Philadelphia red, were vocal throughout, too, leaving Charlie Morton to note that it was the most energized crowd he's ever pitched in front of.

"There was a lot of hostility toward us, a lot of Phillies fans, and there were a ton of supportive fans," said Morton, who led the way to sealing a series victory with seven strong innings. "It was an unbelievable atmosphere. It was pretty awesome."

Morton has been making quality starts with regularity since the first week of April. What was especially encouraging, though, was that his performance was backed up by a balanced attack from the Pirates' offense, which banged out seven extra-base hits.

First baseman Lyle Overbay led the way with a double and a triple in his three-hit night. And yet of all the things Overbay expounded on after the win, he offered his lengthiest answer when asked about the franchise's direction.

"Everybody that gets on first base -- even these guys -- they're telling me that this is a different team," Overbay said. "Everybody knows. We're not going to surprise too many people anymore. The word is out."

Having success against the Phillies at PNC Park is nothing new, as Pittsburgh now boasts a 22-12 record against the state's other team at this park. But that doesn't negate the feeling that this year is different.

Fans are buying into the potential of this 2011 Pirates club. And the team is responding.

"Obviously we're not five, six, seven games over .500, but we're playing really good baseball," Morton said. "It's a great contrast to what was happening last year."

Quietly, too, the Pirates have inched their way back to within a game of .500. Not since June 11, 2005, when the Pirates were 30-30, has the club had an equal number of wins and losses this late in a season.

"I do believe that we're getting some incremental traction with our fanbase," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Hopefully, it's playing out, and they're seeing this is a fun crowd to watch."

Fear that the club will lapse into its typical summer irrelevance should be placated by the fact that the success of the pitching appears to be no fluke. Morton allowed just two runs on Saturday, lowering the starting staff's ERA to a 3.63.

Only once in the past 16 games has a Pittsburgh starter allowed more than two earned runs.

Morton also took another step forward in a season full of them by taming a Phillies lineup that had a heavy left-handed-hitting presence. Having allowed lefties to hit .347 off him this season, Morton limited the Phillies to six hits.

"Morton was very good," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "I even told Roy Halladay that the first couple of pitches I saw, I was laughing to myself, because he was really looking like Roy on the mound. He was very good, moved the ball around, did his thing and got his ground balls."

Knowing he couldn't rely solely on his sinker, Morton mixed in more changeups and four-seam fastballs to keep the Phillies guessing. It worked. Though he had only two clean innings, Morton managed to strand six baserunners, four in scoring position.

"He's got a super sinker," said third baseman Brandon Wood, who supported Morton with his first homer of the season. "I don't want to face him, I'll tell you that."

The Phillies raced out to a 1-0 lead, but Pittsburgh wasted no time snatching it back. Andrew McCutchen drove home Jose Tabata to tie the game in the bottom of the first before the Pirates capitalized on a call reversal.

Home-plate umpire Joe West overruled first-base umpire Angel Hernadnez, who initially called Overbay's chopper to first baseman Ryan Howard fair. Howard stepped on the base, presumably ending the inning. But as the Phillies retreated to the dugout, West summoned Overbay back to the plate. West said Howard had grabbed the ball in foul territory.

"To be honest, I thought it was fair," Overbay admitted. "That changed the whole at-bat."

The second chance proved critical, as Overbay doubled home McCutchen a few pitches later.

The first baseman also tripled and scored in the fourth, which was capped by Wood's solo shot. An RBI double by McCutchen extended the lead in the seventh, and the Pirates capitalized on a throwing error in the eighth to push across another.

"I just like the way we were swinging the bats," Hurdle said. "We've got some better two-strike approaches going right now."

The Pirates' four-run lead briefly seemed like it wasn't cushion enough, as the Phillies rallied against closer Joel Hanrahan in the ninth. Three hits and a walk plated one, and Chase Utley represented the potential go-ahead run when he came to the plate with the bases full.

Hanrahan jumped in front of Utley, 0-2, before getting the game-ending flyout with the crowd on its feet.

"I didn't have the greatest time of my life, but it was fun to get the win and the series victory," Hanrahan said. "That's a huge series to win there, and we have the chance to come out tomorrow for a sweep." Comments