"He obviously locked it all in today," manager John Russell said. "It was very impressive what he did. It was an outstanding job."
Despite what happened last time he took the Wrigley Field mound, Morton showed no signs of hesitancy as he went right after a Chicago lineup void of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez on Wednesday. He set the tone by striking out the side in the first and slowed down only minimally from there.
Chicago collected only four hits, all singles, against him, and only two baserunners reached second. Morton did so as he went on to record his first complete game of his career, a shutout nonetheless, as he struck out a career-high eight batters.
"I was throwing pretty much everything for strikes, just being more aggressive with my pitches," said Morton, who joins Zach Duke as the only Pirates pitchers to throw a shutout this season. "I feel like we had a good game plan and we stuck to it. It was great to get some momentum going, too, some good innings early."
Before Wednesday, Morton had never pitched past the seventh. He had maxed out at six strikeouts three times, including twice this season.
"I felt like I wasn't pressing today," said Morton, who finishes the year 5-9. "That's the first game where I felt through the first three or four innings that things were just coming naturally."
He said, too, that there was little thought given to that previous start in Chicago because it had occurred nearly seven weeks ago.
Maybe it's no surprise, though, that Morton fared so well in his final start of the season. He had been building up to this point ever since that disastrous April 14 start with four quality starts in his next six. He credited his ability to stop thinking so much and a push to be more aggressive for the sudden change in effectiveness.
That was on display again here as he threw a first-pitch strike to 13 of the first 18 hitters he faced.
"To pitch a complete-game shutout, obviously you've got some things going on," Russell said. "The mix that he had, the command that he had, everything was right what he wanted to do. That's one of the things he's really improved on -- knowing what he wants to do and being able to adjust."
The right-hander received all the support that he would need in the opening minutes of the afternoon affair. The Pirates sent eight hitters to the plate and scored four times in a first inning that was punctuated by Lastings Milledge's aggressive, game-changing slide.
The inning started with two walks and Milledge's single to load the bases with one out. Next up was Steve Pearce, whose grounder to Cubs second baseman Andres Blanco looked like it might be the start of an inning-ending double play.
Blanco tossed to shortstop Ryan Theriot, who qucikly had his feet knocked out from under him by Milledge, who went in with a hard slide to the right of second base. Milledge's intention was never hidden. He wanted to take Theriot out.
"I've got to break up two," Milledge said. "I play the game hard. I had to sacrifice myself for the team. It was a clean slide. It was just a lot of contact."
As Theriot fell down, Pearce reached first safely and a run scored. The umpires did not rule Milledge as out of the basepath.
"Both hands were on the base," Russell said, defending the slide. "I didn't see anything wrong with it because you're taught to break up the double play. It ended up being a real big play for us."
Theriot, visibly rattled by the slide, was slow to get back on his feet. However, he, too, called it clean.
"I never felt it was a dirty play," Theriot said. "He hit me with his shin, and he could have hit me with his cleats. That's how you play the game. I'd do the same thing, and almost as players, we're expected to do that. He's playing hard, and you take guys out, and that's what you do."
Still, while Theriot was checked out by the Cubs' trainer, Blanco barked at Milledge as the Pirates outfielder made his way toward the dugout. Milledge turned and responded back. A few Pirates players moved up to the top step of the dugout in case any sort of on-field altercation ensued. It never did.
"He probably felt like we should back off or whatever, but a lot of guys have things to prove here," Milledge said. "We can't afford to back off. We have to play the game."
Not only did Milledge's slide allow the Pirates to take a 1-0 lead, but it extended the inning long enough for catcher Jason Jaramillo to drive in two more with a double, the first of his two hits against Cubs starter Ted Lilly. Brian Bixler capped the scoring with an RBI single, just his 10th hit of the year.
With the win, the Pirates captured just their second road win in the team's past 19 games away from PNC Park. The club is now 2-5 at Wrigley Field this season.