Starter Charlie Morton has found a home with Pittsburgh Pirates

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 10, 2014 

BRADENTON -- On the day he was traded away from the organization that drafted and had begun developing him, Charlie Morton received a phone call.

It was from Neal Huntington, the general manager of Morton's new team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was a simple gesture that went a long way.

"I knew it was a good spot for me," Morton said.

Morton cemented his relationship with the Pirates last December, when he signed a three-year, $21 extension -- it could reach as much as $30 million in total value -- instead of testing the waters of free agency, which he could have done at the conclusion of this season.

"I couldn't imagine things going the way that they went in another organization," Morton said Sunday, when he allowed three runs (one earned) in three innings against the Boston Red Sox in front of a sold-out crowd of 8,245 at McKechnie Field. "That's not to say that it wouldn't have; that's not to say that another organization wouldn't have stuck with me, worked with me until I finally figured things out ... but I don't know that. And I know it happened here."

Morton, along with pitcher Jeff Locke and infielder Gorkys Hernandez, was dealt to the Pirates from the Atlanta Braves on June 3, 2009, in exchange for outfielder Nate McLouth.

The deal was a bit controversial at the time. McLouth was an All-Star in '08 and avoided arbitration the following winter by agreeing to a three-year, $15.75 million contract. He was a burgeoning starter, and the Pirates were apparently going to rebuild the franchise around him.

A few months later, however, he was gone.

And Morton's stint in Pittsburgh got off to a less-than-stellar beginning. He won seven of his first 35 starts and posted a 7.57 ERA in 17 appearances in 2010 after making the starting rotation out of spring.

"Everybody saw what happened in 2010 -- I got booed off the field in 90 percent of the starts I made that year," said Morton, who bounced back in 2011, going 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts.

The Pirates, Morton said, never lost faith in him, even when the righty's 2012 season was ravaged by hip and Tommy John surgeries.

"I have a lot of reason to believe in everybody in this organization. I have a lot of justification to believe in it," said Morton, who was born in New Jersey and now lives in Bradenton. "If I do feel comfortable, it's a result of the character that's in this organization, the integrity that's in this organization and the commitment that's in this organization."

Morton returned to the Pirates last June after completing his rehab to go 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 games to help the franchise reach the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

After spending last spring rehabbing, Morton is now working to contribute to a rotation that also includes Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez.

"There's been a lot of growth with Charlie," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "Most impressively, for me, is Charlie expects more now; Charlie wants more. And Charlie has set up a program and a plan that he's followed with Ray (Searage, the Pirates' pitching coach) to go get more. He's taken ownership of the opportunity. He's always going to be his toughest critic, and most players that work to become good and eventually become great are their toughest critic."

To wit, four of the five hits Morton allowed during Sunday's 4-1 loss came on grounders, which suits the 30-year-old's style: Morton had a groundball rate of 62.9 percent last season, tops among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

His appraisal of Sunday's outing? "It was bad," said Morton, who also allowed a towering home run to Boston's Mike Carp.

Hurdle was a little more forgiving.

"Even on days when he isn't where he wants to be, he still competes," he said, "he's still giving us innings, he's still going to give us a chance to win."

And Morton wouldn't want to do that anywhere else.

"I want to be a Pirate," he said.

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