PITTSBURGH — Charlie Morton didn’t view his return to the majors after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a make or break proposition.
“I didn’t look to this start to validate that I’m back,’” Morton said. “It’s part of the process, a long process.”
It’s a process that’s not nearly complete after the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander gave up four runs in five innings of a 10-0 loss to San Francisco on Thursday night. Morton surrendered seven hits, walked one and struck out five in his first start since last May.
“I wish it had gone better but I think I can take quite a few positives,” Morton said.
That’s including the knowledge he’ll get a few more chances to get settled in. Injuries to starters A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeanmar Gomez and James McDonald have left the surprising Pirates with little wiggle room, thrusting Morton back into the rotation for a least the next couple weeks.
Manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t see that as a major problem after watching Morton reach 96 mph on the radar gun — a tick up over his pre-surgery velocity — and mix in a curveball that kept the Giants off-balance for stretches.
“There’s room for improvement, but for being out a year, first time out on a major league mound, there’s some things we can definitely work with,” Hurdle said.
Morton dealt with some jitters early on, hit three batters and seemed to tire near the end of his 86-pitch night. Then again, after undergoing career-altering surgery 364 days before, there are worse problems to have.
Even better, Morton’s next start won’t come against San Francisco’s Matt Cain.
A year to the day after tossing the 22nd perfect game in major league history, Cain (5-3) shut down the Pirates. He allowed two hits, walked three and struck out two, surrendering only a single to Garrett Jones in the fifth and a double to Garrett Jones in the seventh.
Hunter Pence hit his 11th homer of the season, while Buster Posey, Gregor Blanco and Joaquin Arias had three hits apiece for San Francisco, which handed Pittsburgh its worst loss of the year.
The Giants didn’t knock Morton around so much as chip away. San Francisco touched Morton for a run in each of the first two innings then added two more in the fifth before breaking things open with five runs in the sixth against reliever Mike Zagurski.
The romp was a welcome change for the defending World Series champions, who have struggled on the road. San Francisco came in just 4-12 in its last 16 games away from AT&T Park but had little trouble with Cain returning to form.
The three-time All-Star has run hot and cold this season, getting off to a horrific start in April before going 4-0 in May. The Giants lost both of his starts this month, scoring all of one run in the process.
There were no such problems against Morton.
The 29-year-old veteran, who became a father for the first time earlier this year, anticipated nerves — and it showed. He walked Blanco leading off then drilled Brandon Crawford before Posey followed with a single to left. Morton settled down to end the inning with consecutive strikeouts, but by then Cain already had all the breathing room he would need.
Cain tossed a one-hitter against the Pirates last season, the lone mistake being a fastball in the sixth inning that McDonald turned into a single. Two months later he reached perfection against the overmatched Astros.
He didn’t overwhelm Pittsburgh this time, instead letting his defense do most of the work. Cain wasted little time between pitches and the Pirates could never seem to get comfortable.
San Francisco certainly looked at ease, pushing the lead to 4-0 during a weird fifth inning. Zagurski hit Crawford with one out and Posey smacked a ground-rule double to the gap in left-center. Crawford would have easily scored if the ball hadn’t hopped over the fence.
Things evened out when Pence hit a dribbler that turned into a rundown between third and home. Crawford smacked into Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez during the chase, with home plate umpire Tim McClellan awarding Crawford home plate after ruling Alvarez impeded Crawford’s path.
Andres Torres hit a sacrifice fly, but a potentially big inning came undone when a liner by Arias went right at Pence standing off second base. The San Francisco outfielder dove forward to avoid the ball only to have it deflect off his helmet. Pence earned a bit of revenge the next inning when he smoked a 3-run homer off Zagurski and the rout was on.