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Pirates SP Morton throwing without limitations

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BRADENTON, Fla. (AP)

Four months removed from offseason hip surgery, Pirates starter Charlie Morton is in camp with his teammates, he's throwing without limitations, and he's as eager as anyone to see this new-look team take the field.

Morton, 28, who went 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA and 110 strikeouts last season, will likely be Pittsburgh's fifth starter, which means he has until the middle of April to be at full strength.

But for now, he's pleased with his progress.

''If the ball is coming out easy, with minimal effort, with life, then I know,'' Morton said. ''If I can throw strikes, for the most part, and feel natural, and not force anything, that's about where I want to be.''

Morton, a right-hander, was where he wanted to be a lot last season. After all, his previous career high for wins was five in 2009, and he finished with 171 2-3 innings. He was among the key cogs as the Pirates became the early-season darlings of the National League. They entered the All-Star break above .500 for the first time since 1992, and on July 18, they were in first place in the NL Central.

''It feels good to have a good year under by belt. But I really wish I could have gone deeper into some more games,'' said Morton, who made his major league debut June 14, 2008 with the Braves, and is 21-39 for his career.

''So, that's going to be my No. 1 goal this year. To go deeper.''

The Pirates tailed off significantly down the stretch, finishing at 72-90 and capping off their 19th consecutive losing season. Morton went along for the ride, going 1-4 in his last five decisions.

Despite the finish, Pittsburgh still won more than 70 for the first time since 2004.

This year, Morton, and all of the Pirates, are hoping for more. After all, the starting staff has been bolstered by the acquisitions of A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, who have combined for 177 career wins.

''Their careers speak for themselves. A.J. has been around, and he's done it, and he's had a lot of success. Same with Erik. Both of them have tremendous stuff, and upside, and you really couldn't ask for more in an offseason acquisition than both of those guys,'' Morton said. ''So, I'm looking forward to not only seeing them pitch, but getting to pick their brains a little bit.''

Of course, Pittsburgh won't sneak up on anyone this season. And though there are two playoff teams in the Central from last season - Milwaukee and St. Louis - there is a prevailing thought that the division is out there for the taking, especially with the loss of sluggers Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the Brewers and Cardinals, respectively.

Is there an opening now for the Pirates?

''We're going to go out there and we expect to win. We've reflected on the season enough to where we realize that there were parts of last year, and the majority of last year, we actually played really good baseball,'' Morton said. ''When we do think about those things, we know what we're capable of. Whereas last year, I think that was a big question.''

''We have an identity, we know what we can do, and now we just have to sustain that success.''

Tagged: Pirates, Charlie Morton

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