Pirates SP Morton throwing without limitations

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.”