The right-hander spent 90 long minutes thinking about the bases-loaded, two-out jam that awaited him when he walked back on the field. He stretched. He played catch. Then he breathed.
The one thing he didn’t do was panic. Those days are long gone for the first-place—yes, first-place—Pirates.
Morton escaped thanks to a spectacular play by shortstop Chase d’Arnaud(notes) then rolled to his first victory in over a month as the Pirates beat the Reds 2-0 to move into first-place in the NL Central.
“I could kind of reflect on what I was doing out on the mound and kick myself a little bit to get it going,” Morton said after improving to 8-5.
A little bit is all it takes for the Pirates, who moved a half-game ahead of Milwaukee after the Brewers lost 3-0 at Arizona.
Yes, it’s just July 18. Still, for a team playing against the backdrop of 18 consecutive losing seasons, peering down from atop the standings for at least 24 hours is hardly a bad thing.
“It was a well-pitched gutsy effort by (Morton),” said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.
Morton gave up three hits, struck out three and walked two before the bullpen took over. Tony Watson(notes) pitched 2 2-3 innings of nearly flawless baseball, Daniel McCutchen(notes) got out of a two-on, two-out spot in the eighth and Joel Hanrahan(notes) worked the ninth for his 27th save as Pittsburgh moved to six games over .500 (50-44) for the first time this season.
Not bad for a team that didn’t pick up its 50th win a year ago until mid-September.
Those days appear to be long gone for the Pirates, who haven’t been in first place this late in the season since 1997.
Dontrelle Willis(notes) (0-1) pitched well in his second start since being called up from Triple-A Louisville. The former All-Star surrendered two runs in 4 2-3 innings, striking out five and walking just one.
“I felt good mechanically, first time in a long time mechanically,” said Willis, who threw 51 of his 69 pitches for strikes. “But Morton, he pitched a great game. It was one of those games where a base hit here could have decided it, and it was just one of those things where we were on the other side of the fence today.”
Willis’ only hiccup came in the fourth as the Pirates scratched across a pair of runs in what is becoming very Pirate-like fashion.
d’Arnaud and Neil Walker(notes) led off the fourth with back-to-back singles. Andrew McCutchen(notes) brought d’Arnaud home on an RBI groundout and Walker soon followed on Matt Diaz’s(notes) sacrifice fly.
That was more than enough for Morton and Pittsburgh’s steady bullpen.
Morton has struggled over the last month, his early season success waning. He entered the game with a 6.82 ERA since June 1 but showed flashes of his April and May form on a muggy night at increasingly electric PNC Park.
“This is the best it’s felt in a month,” Morton said.
A well-timed downpour and some spectacular defense certainly helped.
The start of the game was delayed 55 minutes by rain, but the sky briefly cleared, giving Morton just enough time to get in trouble.
He hit Drew Stubbs(notes) to lead off the game and Zack Cozart(notes) followed with a sharp single to put runners on the corners. An intentional walk to Jay Bruce(notes) with two outs loaded the bases.
Morton jumped ahead of Miguel Cairo(notes) 1-2 when a massive thunderclap shook the stadium and lit up the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. Umpire Tony Randazzo ordered the teams off the field and gave Morton a much-needed breather.
Cairo worked the count to 2-2 when play resumed but was robbed by d’Arnaud, who dived into the hole to field a grounder then flipped the ball with his glove to Walker at second base to force out Bruce.
“I’ve only done that play two other times in my life,” d’Arnaud said.
Neither mattered as much as Monday night’s gem.
“I wanted to make contact with the ball and I put the ball in play and the shortstop made a great play and they got out of the inning,” said Cairo, who stranded five runners on base.
The loss blunted some of Cincinnati’s momentum. The defending NL Central champions took a pair of games from St. Louis over the weekend but again struggled to get a hit in a key situation.
The Reds left nine runners on base while being shut out for the fourth time this year as Pittsburgh improved to 6-1 against Cincinnati in 2011.
NOTES: Walker’s single in the first inning extended his hitting streak to 12 games … Cincinnati third baseman Scott Rolen(notes) was given the day off by manager Dusty Baker, who was concerned about Rolen’s sore right shoulder, which has been operated on three times. Rolen is expected to return to the lineup on Tuesday. … Pittsburgh could take shortstop Ronny Cedeno(notes) off the disabled list by Friday. Cedeno went on the seven-day DL on earlier this month with concussion-like symptoms. … d’Arnaud left the game in the fifth with stiffness in his neck after sliding hard into third base in the fourth.