In four of his past five starts, Morton had allowed three earned runs or less in at least six innings of work. Yes, his record (1-8) and ERA (8.71) were not stellar, but he seemed on the verge of turning around his season. He seemed on the verge of something, at least.
But after the Reds touched him for eight hits and seven runs (five earned) in just two innings during an 8-2 loss to Cincinnati in the series finale Thursday night, all of that goodwill has been washed down the Ohio River. Now, the next question is this: what do the Pirates do with their 26-year-old starter?
With Brad Lincoln in Triple-A and waiting to be called to the majors at any time in the near future, it'd seem like Morton -- now 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA -- is a prime candidate to be sent to Indianapolis. Morton met with Pirates manager John Russell for about 30 minutes following the game, and afterward, Russell revealed Morton has been fighting off shoulder fatigue during his past few starts.
But Morton said he didn't feel pain in his shoulder and that the fatigue was a non-factor. Morton, though, isn't ignorant of the dilemma in which he's placed himself. He knows he might be fighting for his job.
"We have plenty of talent in the system," Morton said. "Any time I have a bad start, every time I've had a bad start, I know that there are other options. It's not something I'm not aware of or something I don't think about. It's the reality of the game."
Asked if he planned to keep Morton in the starting rotation, Russell, unable to give a ringing endorsement said, "As of now, yeah."
While Morton was blatantly ineffective against Cincinnati, he really hasn't pitched badly since starting the season with a 16.55 ERA through his first four outings. But if lately he'd been making progress inch by inch, Thursday's rough outing was 10 yards back.
"The reality of it is that those first four starts were just horrendous," Morton said. "Any progress I did make over the past month or so has been overshadowed by how horrible everything else was at the beginning of the year. It's just a difficult situation to be in, in terms of not being able to go out there and make those quality starts every time."
This one got away from him early.
He walked Reds leadoff batter Orlando Cabrera and allowed a single to Miguel Cairo in the first, and Scott Rolen followed by crushing a three-run home run. The next batter, right fielder Jay Bruce, followed suit, blasting a change-up to right field for the 4-0 lead.
The second inning wasn't much better -- singles by Cabrera and Cairo to start the inning, a throwing error by third baseman Andy LaRoche, a bases-loaded two-run single by Drew Stubbs, and soon enough, the Pirates were behind 7-0.
LaRoche, making his first start in six games because of a stiff back, had a chance to limit the damage by turning a double play off a Brandon Phillips ground ball with Orlando Cabrera waiting at third base, but instead, he threw the ball into short right field to cost Morton two unearned runs.
"I knew if it was hit hard to me, it would be a double play," LaRoche said. "But it was hit in between. I was going to go home, and then [Cabrera] wasn't breaking. I stepped toward first and threw to second. I should have stepped toward second. I should have made the decision a little sooner."
By that point, with the way Pittsburgh's offense continues to perform, saving a couple runs wouldn't have made a difference. Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto pitched six shutout innings and allowed three hits while striking out nine, and the Pirates avoided their second consecutive shutout, thanks to a pinch-hit RBI from Aki Iwamura in the seventh.
But the offense wasn't the story Thursday. That belonged to Morton.
"We'll reevaluate it and see where we are," Russell said. "I thought we were seeing a lot of progress in his last two starts. He didn't throw the ball like he's capable of tonight. It was a step back, and we have to see what we can do to get him to go forward."
Perhaps a stop in Triple-A wouldn't be a terrible idea.
"I know from guys who have experienced hitting major speed bumps, going down does help," Morton said. "But at the same time, I feel like I've made enough progress to look at either situation. If I'm here, I'm going to bounce back. If I'm down there, I'll bounce back. That's how I look at."
Josh Katzowitz is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.