By John Perrotto
Clint Hurdle made an extremely media-savvy move earlier this week.
After right-hander Charlie Morton was hammered for eight runs in two innings by the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night at PNC Park, Hurdle attributed the poor outing to arm fatigue rather than bad pitching. Hurdle pointed out that Morton had already pitched more innings this season (86) than he did last season (79 2/3) at the major-league level.
It was perfect subterfuge. By talking about Morton’s physical condition, it took away all the questions about his performance. Thus when a pack of reporters talked to Morton at his locker, most of the conversation was about his arm instead of getting shelled.
While Morton admitted that his pitches had lacked some life in recent starts, he seemed a little surprised when advised that Hurdle had mentioned arm fatigue and was considering skipping his next start.
Morton will indeed miss his next start that was scheduled for Saturday night against the Boston Red Sox at PNC Park. However, one gets the feeling that the reason Hurdle is skipping Morton’s turn in the rotation is more for psychological reasons than physical ones.
Remember that the Pirates sent Morton to work with their sports psychologist at their spring facility in Bradenton, Fla., last season after he went 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA in his first 10 starts. While going 7-4 with a 3.77 ERA in 17 starts has restored some of Morton’s lost confidence, he seemed a little frazzled on Monday after falling to 2-2 with an 8.50 ERA in four June starts in which he has allowed 17 runs in 18 innings.
The Red Sox are the last team Morton needs to face at this point. They not only lead the major leagues in runs scored but their left-handed heavy lineup would likely feast on Morton.
Left-handed batters have teed off on Morton for a .375 batting average, a .443 on-base percentage and a .493 slugging percentage in 168 plate appearances this season. Conversely, right-handed hitters have managed just a .219/.284/.250 line in 214 trips to the plate.
However, the question of arm fatigue might be a question for some other Pirates starting pitchers before much longer. While left-hander Paul Maholm and right-hander Kevin Correia have surpassed the 200-inning threshold in a major-league season, right-hander James McDonald has never logged more than 142 1/3 in a professional season, righty Jeff Karstens’ career high is 189 2/3 and Morton’s is 168 2/3.
Hurdle said the Pirates will likely employ other starters at some point in the season to keep down some of the current starters’ innings totals.
Ross Ohlendorf would be one candidate but he has been on the disabled list since April 9 with a shoulder and doesn’t seem close to beginning a rehab assignment in the minors.
Brad Lincoln is expected to be recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis on July 2 to make a spot start in a doubleheader against the Nationals at Washington and he could get more opportunities later in the season. Others at Indianapolis who may also eventually get a call up are lefties Brian Burres, Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson, and right-hander Sean Gallagher.