WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Charlie Morton got back to his dominating self on Saturday in the Astros' 5-4 win over the Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. In his fourth start this spring, Morton went four innings, allowing three hits and two unearned runs. He struck out seven and walked one.
Morton threw 63 pitches, 42 for strikes in an outing more reminiscent of his first two Grapefruit League starts, both against the Mets, in which he shut out New York on one hit over five innings.
Morton faced the minimum in the first inning Saturday, although he yielded a leadoff single to Nats shortstop Trea Turner, who was later picked off by catcher Matt Wieters.
He got his fastball up to 97 mph on Bryce Harper and eventually struck out the Nats' right fielder, one of two first-inning K's and five consecutive strikeouts. Morton struck out the side in an overpowering second inning.
Morton threw several fastballs at 95 mph and a couple more at 96. But he was more impressed with his offspeed pitches, especially behind in the count.
"I felt like I had a good mix," said Morton, who wasn't even aware of his velocity. "I just try to beat the batter to the zone. If I can do that at 92-93 great, if I can't do that at 97, I guess I've got to pitch better. It's nice to throw hard, but at the end of the day it's can you get outs."
It looked like an easy third inning, but after two quick outs, Morton issued a walk and Turner followed with his second hit of the game. Turner circled the bases when the Astros committed three errors on the play, resulting in two unearned runs.
Undaunted, Morton struck out Stephen Drew to end the inning.
He added his seventh strikeout in the fourth inning just before Ryan Zimmerman collected the third hit for the Nats, all singles. Morton said that strikeouts are nice, but he'd prefer to be a more efficient pitcher.
"Yeah, but that tallied up my pitch total," Morton said of his strikeout total. "I really don't care if I strike people out. It's nice, because you know you're stuff is working pretty well; you're making some pitches."
The nine-year Major League veteran last pitched on March 13, a four-inning stint against the Cardinals in which he gave up two runs on three hits.
The 33-year-old is attempting to rebound from a hamstring injury that cut his season short last year. Morton made just four starts before being shut down by the injury. In just 17 1/3 innings, Morton struck out 19. He posted a 4.15 ERA.
"The struggle has been getting it as strong as my right one," he said of the surgically repaired hamstring. "I think it's reasonably strong right now. But that's been the most difficult thing, the strength."
Over nine Major League seasons, Morton has compiled a 46-71 career record with a 4.54 ERA. His best season was 2013 with Pittsburgh in which he went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA. The following season with the Pirates was his best in terms of strikeouts with 126 over 157 1/3 innings.
Collin McHugh continues to work toward getting his arm in shape for the upcoming season. The right-hander threw two innings, 35 pitches, on Friday in a simulated game. He is scheduled to pitch in a Minor League game on Wednesday, according to Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
Glenn Sattell is a contributor to MLB.com and covered the Astros on Saturday. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.