Expert handicapper ESPN rates the Chicago Cubs a 2-1 favorite over the Pirates in PNC Park tonight.

But the Pirates’ Charlie Morton can beat the Cubs’ Ted Lilly. Because Morton already has. Last year, in Chicago.

It won’t be easy, of course. Recent history suggests that Lilly will go about six innings against the Pirates, giving up about three runs, more likely than not for a quality start.

Basically, the Pirates figure to score against him, but not run up the total. He is aged 34, which is to say that he figures to decline with each passing year.

The wild card, of course, is Morton, who is at the beginning of his career. He is capable of pitching from one to nine innings, giving up from 0 to 10 runs. At least against the Cubs, because he has done both. (The run total has been inversely related to his tenure.)

Don’t talk about averages with this guy, because he doesn’t fall into the usual probability distributions. A “mediocre” performance, something like four runs in five innings that used to be the staple of Zach Duke, is not typical of Morton. Against Lilly, that might represent a “garden variety” loss.

But Morton is on an improving trend lately. Lilly, on a decline. At some point, the paths may cross in the Pirates’ favor. Hopefully, that point will be tonight.

Morton has a “lights out” K/9 rate, striking out more than one batter an inning. He doesn’t walk an awful lot of players. But he has given up one home run every three innings in 2010. That rate has historically been one in 10.

Morton’s 2010 batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is an exceptionally high .439. Unless he’s hurt, that suggests that he’s been unlucky over a small number of innings.

Last year, that average was a perfectly normal .310. Lilly’s is under .300, on the low side of normal, meaning that his results might get worse.

Morton also pitches better at home. Last year, his ERA in PNC Park was just over 3.00. That’s decidedly better than Lilly is likely to be.

The bookies are saying that Morton won’t pitch his best game tonight. But a 2-1 bet against the Pirates is one that I’m willing to take on the long odds side. Because they’re probably shorter than that.

The only thing that I’m not willing to bet on is that Morton will match Lilly inning for inning, run for run. Because Morton is likely to be better than Lilly—or else a lot worse.

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