Charlie Morton showed no ill effects from hip surgery when he beat Miami in his season debut, but the pitcher the Marlins will face again exactly three months later seems to be far more polished.
Pittsburgh has seen a number of encouraging signs lately from Morton, whose recent history against Miami suggests another solid outing could be in store Tuesday night as the visiting Pirates try for an 11th win in 13 games.
Injuries and a lack of consistency have kept Morton (8-4, 4.06 ERA) from being a reliable member of Pittsburgh's rotation since his arrival in 2009, but he's had his share of impressive performances this season - especially of late.
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The right-hander has pitched at least into the seventh without allowing a run four times in his past 13 starts, doubling the amount he had in 55 outings over the past three seasons for the Pirates (75-48). Two of those have come this month, including Thursday's 4-0 win over San Francisco as Morton allowed four hits through 6 2-3 innings.
He also fanned eight, giving him 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings in four August starts. That's more than double his 5.25 per nine through July, a figure that ranked 122nd of 135 starters to toss at least 70 innings.
"Charlie is developing into a more complete pitcher," manager Clint Hurdle told MLB's official website. "A pitcher with a sinkerball, rather than a sinkerball pitcher. His curve has so much tilt and depth."
Hurdle isn't just paying lip service to the curve. Opponents are hitting .100 against Morton's hook, the lowest average off any starter's pitch that's been thrown at least 250 times - just ahead of Clayton Kershaw's signature curve.
When he's not striking batters out, Morton is keeping the ball on the ground. His 3.24 ground-to-fly ball ratio is fourth in the majors.
"It's fun to play behind him when he's going well because he gets a lot of ground balls that lead to a lot of quick innings and you get on and off the field in a hurry," second baseman Neil Walker said.
That should come in handy against the Marlins (50-75), who are on pace for the majors' highest percentage of ground balls (53.9) since it became an official stat in 1987. It certainly worked in Morton's favor May 25 at PNC Park against Miami, when he got 18 outs on the ground and three via strikeout while lasting seven in a 4-2 win.
That was the fourth consecutive start in which Morton went seven against the Marlins, and he's 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA. The lone Miami player other than Giancarlo Stanton to have any success off Morton is Christian Yelich (5 for 13), who could return Tuesday from a stint on the disabled list due to a knee contusion.
J.A. Happ made it look easy in Monday's opener, pitching six scoreless innings in a 5-2 win to become the fifth Pittsburgh starter in six games to not allow an earned run.
"They're having a lot of fun, playing good baseball and doing a lot of little things right," Happ said of his team, which is 27 games over .500 for the first time since 1992. "It's awful fun to watch."
Miami counters with Brad Hand (3-3, 4.46), who's been more effective as a starter than a reliever. In six starts against NL clubs, he's 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA, including five scoreless innings in Pittsburgh on May 27 before the Marlins lost 5-2.
The left-hander held Philadelphia to a run over six innings Thursday in a 9-7 win, improving to 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA in 16 games - three starts - at home.
Hand has faced 220 left-handed batters without allowing a homer since Bryce Harper took him deep April 9, 2014.