PITTSBURGH — Charlie Morton spent much of the offseason waiting for his surgically repaired hip to heal and most of spring training waiting for his form to return.
When it didn't, the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander went on a six-week journey to rebuild his delivery from the ground up. The result looked — and felt — awfully familiar. His sinker forcing the Marlins to pound the ball into the PNC Park turf with alarming frequency, Morton pitched seven solid innings in his first start in more than eight months in a 4-2 win on Monday night.
"I think it was just a relief," Morton said. "I knew my stuff was pretty good during rehab starts. I knew I was getting ground balls and swings and misses. I knew it was good enough to get big-league hitters out but to go out and do it is really (something different)."
Morton (1-0) gave up two runs on eight hits, striking out three while getting 18 outs on groundballs. He needed only 87 pitches while leading the Pirates to their fourth straight win.
"My stroke is a little bit better, more fluid," Morton said. "My timing is a little bit better. My direction. Everything is a little bit better overall. Those are things I can keep tweaking, fine tuning and get better. That was the best I felt in awhile."
And it's arguably the best the Pirates have looked all season. Pittsburgh moved back to .500 (22-22) behind Morton's efficient work and home runs by Francisco Cervelli and Pedro Alvarez.
Mired in a funk last week, manager Clint Hurdle challenged his team to get its act together. The Pirates have responded by outscoring opponents 25-6 during their current run.
"We're playing the kind of baseball we're capable of," Morton said. "We have to play hungry."
Mark Melancon worked a perfect ninth for his 11th save as the Pirates improved to 9-1 in their last 10 home games against the Marlins.
Giancarlo Stanton hit his 13th homer and drove in two for the Marlins while adding a spectacular catch against the wall in right field. David Phelps (2-2) surrendered four runs in six innings. The Marlins fell to 2-6 under new manager Dan Jennings.
"We had some chances," Jennings said. "(Phelps) gave us an opportunity to hang in there. We had some chances, we just didn't get the hit there when the opportunities presented itself."
Morton underwent surgery last September to repair a torn labrum in his right hip. The team expected him to be part of the rotation when this season began, but his progress stalled on the eve of the opener and he was given extra time work on his mechanics. Morton seemed to find something over his final three rehab starts, going 2-1 with a 1.33 ERA.
That momentum carried over to a team that's spent the first two months of the season searching for consistency. Morton gave up a first inning run when Dee Gordon led off with an infield single and later scored on a single by Stanton. Morton escaped further damage by getting Justin Bour to hit into an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play, starting a pattern that would repeat several times over.
Whenever Miami tried to get something going, Morton would roll out a two-seam fastball that the Marlins would pound into the dirt. Miami didn't produce one fly ball out against Morton. Stanton's home run to the seats in right field in the third marked one of the few times the Marlins got the ball in the air at all.
Cervelli gave Morton some room to work in the second when he sent a Phelps offering over the wall in right to make it 3-1. It was Cervelli's first homer with the Pirates and the first given up by Phelps this season. Stanton's shot drew Miami within 3-2, but Alvarez's fourth homer in his last eight games just cleared the wall to the left of the notch in left-center to push Pittsburgh's lead back to 4-2.
Phelps, who had been unbeaten on the road this season, walked two and struck out four.
Marlins: Jennings is optimistic RHP Mat Latos will be back relatively quickly after going on the 15-day DL last Friday with knee inflammation. ... RHP Henderson Alvarez continues to work on strengthening exercises for his ailing right shoulder. Alvarez underwent a second MRI on the shoulder on Sunday but it's still unclear what the next step will be in the evaluation process.
Pirates: With Morton back in the rotation, the Pirates designated RHP Radhames Liz for assignment. Liz was 1-3 with a 3.63 ERA in 11 games in his return to the big leagues after six-year absence.
Miami will call up RHP Jose Urena from Triple-A to take Latos' spot in the rotation. Urena made two relief appearances for the Marlins last month. Jeff Locke (2-2, 5.28) starts for the Pirates. The 2013 All-Star is 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in his last six starts.
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