Morton steps up against D-backs

Morton steps up against D-backs

PHOENIX -- Just last week, there was reason to wonder if Charlie Morton was mentally prepared to pitch at the Major League level. Two starts later, the young right-hander has shown the Braves much more than simply the fact that he has a top-caliber arm.

Admittedly an individual who has never possessed much self-confidence, Morton has at least shown determination and an improved mentality since encountering the worst start of his young career. The two outings which have followed have only further proved why Braves manager Bobby Cox believes this kid has a very bright future.

Since being introduced to Morton's talents during an Arizona Fall League game last year, Cox has been impressed. His impressions certainly weren't diminished at Chase Field on Thursday night, when the rookie hurler tossed seven scoreless innings and helped the Braves gain a 6-4 win over the Diamondbacks.

"Charlie was good tonight," Cox said. "He mixed them up really well. They hit a bunch of balls at people."

Although he didn't produce the five no-hit innings that Cox witnessed in last year's AFL game, Morton was still impressive while limiting the National League-West leading Diamondbacks to five singles over his seven scoreless innings. After the first inning, he didn't allow a baserunner to reach as far as third base.

"I got away with some pitches tonight," said Morton, who snapped a personal three-start losing streak and won for the third time in 10 career Major League starts. "But for the most part, I felt like I had my pitches working."

After the Diamondbacks produced consecutive one-out singles in the first inning, Morton retired the next two batters. Then after surrendering consecutive singles to begin the sixth inning, the Braves hurler induced a Chad Tracy double-play groundout before recording his second strikeout of Mark Reynolds.

"It's really a pleasure to see him pitch well the past two starts," Mark Kotsay said. "He threw a great game tonight. He's going to have his ups and downs. But he was consistent tonight. He was consistently throwing strikes."

Casey Kotchman's first-inning sacrifice fly provided Morton a lead before he threw his first pitch and Kotsay's fifth-inning solo homer off Yusmeiro Petit provided some further comfort. As for the four runs the Braves produced in the eighth against Tony Pena, they proved to be much-needed insurance.

After Blaine Boyer allowed the D-backs to tally four more runs in the eighth inning, Mike Gonzalez retired each of the four batters he faced to convert his fifth save and secure Morton's first victory since the All-Star break.

When Morton surrendered eight earned runs in just 3 2/3 innings against the Cardinals on Saturday, it seemed like he was mentally destroyed. But with the help of pitching coach Roger McDowell and team chaplain Tim Cash, he's lessened the pressure he was placing on himself.

McDowell and Cash simply told him to take a pitch-to-pitch approach. Before the 24-year-old hurler was placing his focus on the results he'd produce over the entirety of his outing.

"It's helped me with my focus and lightened the load a little bit," said Morton, who has surrendered runs in just one of his past 14 innings.

Morton's turnaround came on Saturday, when he blanked the Brewers for six innings before surrendering a pair of seventh-inning runs. Suddenly he regained the confidence that had been lacking in his previous five starts, during which he'd gone 1-3 with a 9.56 ERA.

"His mound presence is much better," Cox said. "Plus tonight, we found out that he can hit."

Morton's third-inning leadoff double was his first career hit. But when he got picked off second base, after Gregor Blanco didn't make contact with a bunt attempt, he also gained one of his first big league baserunning lessons.

"I knew that was going to happen," Cox said. "That's one of my all-time pet peeves. But before I could yell at him, it was too late."

The Braves, who had lost nine of their past 12, took advantage of each of the limited opportunities provided by Petit, who allowed two earned runs and four hits in five innings. Blanco began his two-hit night with a first-inning leadoff single, advanced to second base on a balk and eventually scored on Kotchman's sacrifice fly.

Kotsay's first homer since May 20 increased his team's early advantage. But it was the four-run eighth, which featured consecutive doubles from Blanco and Yunel Escobar that provided all of the necessary runs for Morton.

After Boyer, who has a 16.88 ERA in his past eight appearances, surrendered a two-out, three-run homer to Reynolds, Gonzalez completed the eighth and then worked a perfect ninth to successfully convert his 35th consecutive save opportunity, dating back to 2004.

In the process, Gonzalez provided Morton an opportunity to celebrate a win and increase a sense of confidence that still obviously remains at least a little bit shaky.

"I know I'm capable of pitching well," Morton said. "But I also know that I'm capable of pitching badly. It can change in a heartbeat."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.