James McDonald struck out nine in six innings of solid work and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense did enough damage against an old friend to down the Atlanta Braves 3-1 on a chilly Saturday night at PNC Park.
McDonald, who allowed eight runs to the Cardinals on Monday in a dispiriting short start, limited the explosive Braves to a single run, which scored on a bases-loaded walk in the second inning. Although he issued four walks in all, his mid-90s fastball and sharp curve were working in effective tandem once again.
Longtime former Pirate Paul Maholm outdid McDonald through the first five innings, shutting out Pittsburgh on two hits. But the Bucs bats came alive in the sixth, capped by Gaby Sanchez’ first homer of the season. The blast to center field scored Andrew McCutchen, who had doubled in Starling Marte, giving the Pirates a 3-1 advantage.
The bullpen held the lead, with Mark Melancon (eighth) and Jason Grilli (ninth) contributing two more no-drama innings. The late-game duo has yet to surrender a lead, a significant part of the 6-2 surge that has boosted the Pirates to 9-8 after an abysmal first week of the season.
Pittsburgh will go for the series victory over Atlanta on Sunday afternoon. The NL East-leading Braves (13-4) entered the current four-game set with MLB’s best record, but the best offense in the big leagues has been held to one run in the past two games, both Pirates victories.
Saturday’s win was a continuation of a promising homestand for the Pirates, who swept NL Central favorite Cincinnati last weekend before splitting a rain-shortened two-game series with St. Louis and dropping a homer-filled opener to Atlanta on Thursday night.
Sanchez’ dinger was the longest shot of a windblown Saturday on the shores of the Allegheny River, as temperatures dipped below 40 degrees in the latter stages of the game. McCutchen hit a pair of doubles against Maholm, whose ERA is still just 1.03 even after allowing three runs in six innings.
It appeared to be a pitching mismatch, since McDonald had allowed 12 runs in his last two starts, but the first inning indicated otherwise. McDonald struck out the first three Atlanta hitters, then added three more punchouts in the second to escape further self-induced damage.
Following the Pirates’ three-run binge in the sixth, they threatened again in the seventh when catcher Mike McKenry stroked a leadoff double. Pinch-runner Alex Presley advanced to third on a wild pitch, but Clint Barmes struck out against reliever Cory Guerrin and Marte grounded into a double play.
The Pittsburgh relief trio of Tony Watson, Melancon and Grilli erased any memory of that offensive failure, however, pleasing a crowd of 29,313.
Jonathan Sanchez will oppose Atlanta’s Kris Medlen in Sunday’s series finale at 1:35 p.m.