Charlie Morton, with help from Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, shut out the Chicago White Sox tonight 3-0 as the Pirates won their sixth game in a row and third consecutive shutout. The pitching staff will go to Chicago for the away half of their four-game series with the Chisox on a streak of 30 consecutive scoreless innings, their longest such streak since the end of the 1976 season.
In a year highlighted by the emergence of Gerrit Cole as a true staff ace, the remarkable Pittsburgh resurrection of A.J. Burnett, and the consistent excellence of a fully healthy Francisco Liriano, it has been the arrival and emergence from the wilderness of Morton that has transformed the staff from merely great to other-worldly. Morton has now won all five games he has started since returning to the Pirates and has lowered his ERA to 1.62. Always a pretty good pitcher when he has been healthy, Morton has never seemed more confident or fully in command as he has this year.
Tonight Morton pitched seven scoreless innings, struck out three, walked one, and gave up only four hits. He got into a bit of trouble in the first inning, needing 23 pitches to escape unscathed. He walked lead-off hitter Adam Eaton and gave up a one-out single to Jose Abreu, moving Alexei Ramirez, who had reached on a fielder's choice, to second. But Morton was able to retire Melky Cabrera on a fly out and Avisail Garcia on a fielder's-choice grounder to second base to end the threat. After that, Morton cruised, giving up a harmless single to Eaton in the third before retiring 11 straight through the sixth inning.
The three runs that the Pirates offense provided for Morton felt like plenty. Starling Marte led off the Pirates third with a single, stole second, and scored on a single by Andrew McCutchen. Sean Rodriguez, starting his second straight game at first base against White Sox lefty starter Jose Quintana (wait, weren't those starts supposed to go to Corey Hart?) hit a solo home run to left center in the fourth, and Francisco Cervelli hit one in the same place in the sixth. The Pirates loaded the bases in the seventh and failed to score, and another rally fizzled in the eighth, but it didn't seem to matter much, and in the end it didn't.
The only uncomfortable moment came in the top of the seventh when Morton gave up solid hits to Cabrera and Geovany Soto and, with two outs, had to face Adam LaRoche off the bench in his first appearance of the series. But Morton retired LaRoche on a fielder's-choice bouncer before I had time to remember all the home runs LaRoche hit against his former team as a member of the Washington Nationals.
Watson and Melancon closed things out tidily in the eighth and ninth, with a walk to Ramirez by Watson the lone blemish in otherwise perfect relief pitching.
@piratevigorish wrote tonight on Twitter, "I'm starting to ask myself is this the best Buccos rotation in my lifetime?" I'm guessing that my lifetime has been longer than his, and I'm asking myself the same thing.