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Sanchez keys sixth-inning rally for dynamic McDonald

PITTSBURGH -- As the Atlanta Braves arrived Thursday evening for the start of a four-game series, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was invited to laud the pitching staff of the team with the Majors' best record.

"There's not one guy there we can't beat," Hurdle said instead, then added an advisory for that staff's early-season shine. "Their team ERA won't be 1.77 at the end of the year."

It won't even be close to that at the end of the weekend.

After having already taken liberties on Julio Teheran (in a losing effort) and Tim Hudson, the Bucs on Saturday bagged the biggest game, rallying for a 3-1 victory over the Braves and Paul Maholm.

Maholm's ERA went from 0.00 to 1.03, and the Braves' stands at 2.26 entering Sunday's series finale.

The surge came just in time to reward James McDonald's tenacity with a victory -- and that was the part that seemed to please the Pirates the most, far more than just being the first team this season to actually score against Maholm.

The Bucs know how important McDonald is to their season prospects, and they also know how good he can be. They saw it on a regular basis through the first three and a half months of last season. They saw it again on Saturday -- with very significant twists.

"The second was a big test for him, one he hasn't passed often," Hurdle said. "He did tonight … that's the guy we're looking for, the guy our team likes playing behind."

McDonald's proclivity for lapses of inconsistency was put on display in that second inning. Through four, each team had only one hit, with both teams only having posted a double. But while Andrew McCutchen's fourth-inning rocket off the center-field wall was isolated, Chris Johnson's perfectly-placed shot into the North Side Notch came amid a hit batter and two walks, the latter to .196-hitting Andrelton Simmons with the bases loaded.

What most everyone squirming through that inning did not know -- and they included the PNC Park crowd of 29,313 -- was that McDonald felt in control the whole time, thanks to a pre-game ego massage by Russell Martin.

Even on a night he would not be catching him -- instead getting a start at third base -- Martin exerted a huge influence on McDonald by treating him to his so-called "strikeout reel," a video montage of him blowing people away.

"The confidence from seeing all that … I carried it into the game," McDonald said. "It was very motivational. It worked. I felt confident out there, no negative thoughts at all, not even with the bases loaded. Every pitch I threw, everything I did, I felt confident."

He overcame the second-inning hurdle to pitch two-hit ball through six, with nine strikeouts. The trusted bullpen shuttle -- Tony Watson-to-Mark Melancon-to-Jason Grilli -- took care of the rest.

Maholm, the former Pirates lefty, had not allowed a run this season in more than 25 innings until the Pirates ambushed him for three in the sixth, when McCutchen's game-tying double led to Gaby Sanchez's two-run homer. The Bucs thus broke through after having had Maholm in nominal trouble the previous two innings.

"That's the way it happens. You're able to do that if you put pressure on the pitcher," Sanchez said. "A couple of times we just missed some pitches here and there, and in that sixth we were able to put it all together."

Sanchez was part of Hurdle's shuffled starting lineup to load up right-handed hitters against Maholm. Sanchez took Garrett Jones' place at first while Jose Tabata stepped in for Travis Snider in right and Martin filled in at Pedro Alvarez's hot-corner digs.

Even in the troublesome second, McDonald wound up striking out the side -- as he had in the first inning.

"From that first inning on," McCutchen said, "we knew it'd be a great game for us. He did an amazing job, and it was good to see. I'm happy for him."

The Bucs' first two-on crack at Maholm came in the fifth, which Martin began with a walk. Neil Walker followed with an intended sacrifice, but his bunt down the first-base line was so perfect he beat it out for a single. Rising to the challenge of his shutout season being spoiled, Maholm struck out the next three men.

The next time he was in jeopardy, Maholm had no response. Starling Marte led off the sixth with a walk and moved to second on Tabata's sacrifice bunt. Then the quick one-two punch to hand the Braves their fourth loss -- double the total with which they had hit town.

Both huge hits by the two right-handed hitters -- Nos. 3 and 4 in the Pittsburgh order -- came with first base open. A bit of machismo by the southpaw Maholm?

Rather, he said he knew what he had to do, just fell short in executing it.

"If I make the pitch down and away or miss in like I was trying to do with Gaby, it's probably a different outcome," Maholm said. "But it's part of the game. You're going to miss a pitch. Sometimes the hitters miss it and pop it up. Today, they did some damage with it. With Gaby, I throw a fastball in, and it's one of the only pitches he can do damage with and he did it. I got [McCutchen] out earlier on a fastball away. But [the one in the sixth] wasn't executed very well. It's more execution than anything."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Gaby Sanchez, James McDonald