PITTSBURGH -- "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." -- Grantland Rice.
"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how long you pitch the game." -- Charlie Morton.
By Morton's own yardstick, his effort Friday night fell short. But -- sorry, Charlie -- he got credit for the Bucs' 4-3 win over Washington at PNC Park.
Morton's overdue win -- his first since Sept. 2 -- was almost rendered anticlimactic when, contrary to plans, Jason Grilli was forced to make his return appearance in a save situation, and he turned the emergency opportunity into his fifth save.
Comparing the two principles, Morton rode a docile pony and Grilli a bucking bronco. The closer had to work around a leadoff walk of Anthony Rendon, and watched right-fielder Josh Harrison leap at The Clemente Wall to snare Ian Desmond's drive for the final out.
"I was, just like everybody else, hoping that ball was coming down," Grilli said. "But it was going to The Man -- J-Hay's the man right now. It felt good to get back on the horse. The adrenaline was definitely pumping."
Manager Clint Hurdle's plans to ease Grilli back to work -- he'd been on the DL since April 26 with a strained left oblique -- were waylaid by Morton's shorter-than-usual shift. That emptied the bullpen and, with neither Mark Melancon nor Tony Watson available due to recent workloads, Grilli found himself at the end of the line.
Morton ended a string of 14 consecutive starts without a victory by turning away the Nationals on five hits and a run for 5 2/3 innings. And there is the irony: The right-hander who values innings pitched above all other starters' measures worked deeper in 10 of those 14 winless starts.
No wonder then that, when asked what was different this time compared to those times "when things weren't working," Morton took a long pause then said, "I won. I got a win."
"The end result," Morton later said, "a win, I don't think tells the story. Nothing stuck out to me that was any different. I walked four guys and hit another, so ..."
Morton usually isn't as wild, either. So ... shorter outing, wilder, less efficient use of pitches -- 108 to get 17 outs -- and the victory.
"Six losses is a lot this early," Morton conceded, "but I can't dwell on that over the process. That's why I was disappointed when Clint came and got me. I had good stuff tonight, and could've gone deeper, just didn't use it as effectively as I wanted to."
The Bucs' third straight victory went to Morton and bore out Edinson Volquez's wish of the night before.
"Hopefully," Volquez had said after having held Washington to one run in six innings of the 3-1 win, "tomorrow Charlie will follow me, and do the same thing."
Close enough, at one out short. Morton even had some of the same help, with Ike Davis singles triggering both of the Bucs' scoring rallies against Jordan Zimmermann.
A new lineup combination immediately clicked for the Pirates. Davis, debuting in the cleanup spot, led off the second with a single and Russell Martin, back after a 22-game absence, doubled him to third. They took turns scoring on a Starling Marte grounder and a Zimmermann wild pitch.
Davis, of course, dislodged the previous cleanup hitter, Pedro Alvarez, who in protest, clocked his ninth homer in the fourth with Davis aboard with his second single, the two-run job upping the Bucs' lead to 4-0. That was Alvarez's first home run since May 5.
"He continues to tell me his approach isn't going to change," said Hurdle, referencing Alvarez's uptick in production when he drops from the four-hole. "They'll show you how comfortable they are, how they're feeling by the way they get things done performance-wise."
Morton got two outs in the fourth on well-struck fly balls -- a red flag after no outfield flies in the first three innings, when he got seven outs on grounders. He began the fifth by walking Zimmermann, then got two outs on a Span liner right to Davis on the first-base bag, and Rendon flied to right to end that inning.
In the sixth, Morton continued to lose his footing. Greg Dobbs' sacrifice fly with the bases loaded and none out got the Nats on the board, and Morton regrouped to fan Zach Walters before being replaced by Jared Hughes.
Yet, Hurdle was more admiring of Morton's post-third work, particularly the resolve to fan Walters with runners at the corners.
"I just thought he used what he had to get outs," Hurdle said. "He didn't have his number one weapon and he was still able to go out there and push that game. [The strikeout] was a big push for him."
Jared Hughes got the last out in the sixth to clean up Morton's mess. Justin Wilson pitched out of his own mess in the seventh, but needed help when more trouble brewed in the eighth. He bequeathed the bases loaded to Bryan Morris, who gave up a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston and saw another run cross the plate on a passed ball by Martin.
Morris than speared a hard comebacker by Span and tossed him out at first to strand the potential tying run on second base.
That was the last of 11 runners left on base by the Nationals, who went 1-for-9 with men in scoring position as they receded to the .500 level (24-24) for the first time this season.
"It's not frustrating at all," said Washington manager Matt Williams. "It's part of the game to create those opportunities. We didn't come through tonight. We have to play tomorrow. It's good that we had those opportunities. We'll go get them tomorrow again."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.