Morton makes strides with little reward

Morton makes strides with little reward

LOS ANGELES -- For Charlie Morton, Friday night was better. Much better, he'd say afterward. Even still, it wouldn't be good enough.

Though the scoreboard may not suggest as much, the Pirates' 6-2 loss to the Dodgers in front of 46,775 at Dodger Stadium was a step forward for the struggling right-hander. Certainly, Morton would prefer a leap at this point, but there would be no complaining about small steps either.

"Having a game where I can honestly look back and make some minimal corrections as opposed to feeling like it was a disaster is a huge step forward," Morton said. "The whole attitude going into this game was that it couldn't get much worse. I might as well go back to basics and try and have fun and let the ball go. It helped. It just helped to simplify it."

With as bad as things have been for Morton this month, the little things mattered -- like being able to last six innings and matching his career high with eight strikeouts and not having an inning snowball too far out of control.

He had come in with a bloated 16.20 ERA and three starts lasting less than four innings. That all certainly seemed to lower the standard of success for the righty.

"That was a good start for him to build off of," manager John Russell said. "Charlie threw a good game. Let's just build it from there. He's been working for this and he was rewarded for it tonight."

But in a results-oriented field, the benchmarks are wins and losses. And Morton still hasn't been good enough to finally dent the win column.

Ultimately, the righty fell victim to two home run balls and some suspect defense behind him. He took his fifth loss of the season as a result, becoming the only pitcher in the Majors to lose that many games this April. The most consecutive losses by a Pirates pitcher to start a season is eight, done by Todd Ritchie in 2001.

Morton's first mistake -- though he didn't necessarily characterize the pitch as that -- came just three hitters into his outing. After getting ahead of Andre Ethier, Morton left an inside fastball up and Ethier took it out. The two-run homer gave the Dodgers their first lead since Saturday.

"He's a really, really good hitter," Morton said of Ethier, owner of a .382 average at home this year. "He got me."

The Dodgers' lead remained 2-1 until the third, when Morton's infield defense let him down. First it was Bobby Crosby, who muffed a routine ground ball hit to his left.

"I should have made it," Crosby said. The error was the fourth in Crosby's first 18 chances at short this season.

Then with one out, first baseman Jeff Clement was unable to block Ethier's hard, low liner hit right at him. The ball shot into short right field, giving Ethier time to reach first.

"I didn't get the glove down far enough," Clement said of his first error this season. "I couldn't really read the hop and went down in case it came up on me and just didn't keep my glove down far enough."

That would force Morton to have to get two extra outs in the inning, and he would only get one. Morton hung a 1-1 curveball to James Loney, and the first baseman sent it over the wall for a two-out, three-run blast.

"I was trying to throw it for a strike and he put a pretty good swing on it," Morton said. "I didn't really have very good control with my curve today."

All three runs scoring on the hit were unearned.

"We catch the ball that one inning and it might be a different story for him," Russell said. "We need to make those plays."

Home runs haven't been all that uncommon of Morton this season. In 19 1/3 innings, he's allowed seven balls to leave the park. That's as many homers as Morton allowed in 97 innings (18 starts) last season.

Throughout the night, Morton showed flashes of dominance and nasty pitch movement, much as he has in short spurts all season. It's the inability to string together multiple innings of that, however, that continues to hold the right-hander back.

He allowed one more run before his six-inning effort ended. Still ...

"To have a decent game against a good team is a good feeling," Morton said. "The trouble that's been consistently there wasn't there all night. It was minimized just by going out and trying to have fun and just let the ball go a little bit."

For the second time this season, the Pirates' offense was held at bay by Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley. Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Doumit each had multi-hit nights and RBI doubles, though the rest of the offense combined for just two base knocks.

"You have to tip your hat," Russell said of Billingsley. "He threw a good game."

For Doumit, the RBI was his eighth in the past four days. He also extended his hitting streak to 10 games, one short of his career high. McCutchen added a sensational diving catch to his two-hit night. He leads the club with eight multi-hit games this season.

The loss snapped the Pirates' modest three-game road win streak. Still, Pittsburgh can clinch a season-series win over L.A. with just one win over the weekend.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.