After starting April winless in four games, the Braves had a chance to finish it atop the National League East.
They’ll have to wait, though, after a 9-3 loss on Monday dropped them one-half game behind the upstart Washington Nationals, who were idle.
As downtrodden as the Phillies seem to be so far this season, some things never change. The Braves want to take over first place? They will have to go through the five-time defending division champions, who visit Atlanta for the next three days, their first trip to Turner Field since knocking the Braves out of the postseason last Sept. 26-28.
The Braves spent the last four games of April getting more than they wanted from the Pirates, who came into the wrap-around series with the lowest-scoring offense in the major leagues by 18 runs.
The Pirates scored a season-high nine Monday to split the series 2-2 and break up a streak of five straight series victories by the Braves since their season-opening sweep by New York. James McDonald outpitched Mike Minor, who gave up a season-high seven runs in 6 1/3 innings.
“(McDonald) kept them in the game and their offense came alive,” said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who went 1-for-5 and got thrown out in a controversial play at second. “They hit the ball well tonight. There are going to be games like this sometimes.”
The Pirates, who were averaging a majors’-worst 2.33 runs per game, snapped a streak of 21 games with five or fewer runs, the longest such streak to open a season since the Brewers did it for 31 straight in 1972.
“They’re not a bad team, I’m telling you,” Bourn said. “Any team that can pitch, they’re always going to be in the game. And they have one of the better pitching staffs in the National League to me.”
The Braves managed only seven earned runs in 23 innings in four games against the Pirates starters, while striking out 27 times. The Braves struck out 10 times in 7 2/3 innings against McDonald.
Eric Hinske was a rare bright spot for the Braves, going 4-for-4, with a double and an RBI, in his second start of the year in right field after Jason Heyward sat out with a sore oblique. Four hits matched a career-high for Hinske, who last did it July 4, 2004 with the Blue Jays.
For the Braves, Minor was not the sharp and confident young pitcher he’d been in his previous three starts, all Braves wins. He gave up as many runs his first four innings on Monday – four – as he had in those previous three games combined.
“His command got a little bit erratic there and for me he couldn’t get any of his stuff over the plate,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He had to come back over the plate and they capitalized on that. But he’s been so good; he’s allowed to have one of these outings.”
The pitch he’ll remember most is a first-pitch mistake to Pedro Alvarez, his former Vanderbilt teammate, who homered for the third time in a week to put the Pirates up 4-2.
Alvarez figured to be the only real home-run threat in the Pirates’ lineup – he has five homers, while the rest of the Pirates have seven. But Yamaico Navarro didn’t let it stop him from taking Minor over the left field wall for a two-run shot in the sixth and only the third home run of his career.
“They showed if I don’t make good pitches what happens to them,” said Minor, now 2-2 with a 4.68 ERA. “And tonight I really didn’t have any command of any pitches.”
The night had started well for the Braves, though it was with mixed emotions. Freddie Freeman ambushed McDonald with a two-run home run on the first pitch he saw in the first inning, his fourth of the year. It might have been good for three runs had Bourn not been called out at second base on a steal attempt, when it appeared his left leg was in safely.
The normally agreeable Bourn immediately reacted, arguing with second base umpire Kerwin Danley, before Gonzalez came out to act as a buffer. The run-in was the Braves’ second in as many days with this umpiring crew after Tim Hudson and Doug Eddings exchanged words Sunday afternoon, though both Bourn and Gonzalez said it never got close to an ejection.
“I wasn’t cussing at him or anything like that,” Bourn said. “I wasn’t using any foul language. I know when I’m safe and when I’m out. If I’m out, I’m not going to make an argument about it, I’ll take it. But three of the calls this year, I’ve been safe. I just want it to be right.”