Braves can't back Jurrjens' strong start
Atlanta has no luck with runners in scoring position
PITTSBURGH -- Jair Jurrjens found a solution for the control problems that had proven frustrating during his first two starts of the season. But he was left feeling helpless while receiving no support from a Braves lineup that was once again weakened by Chipper Jones' absence at PNC Park on Friday night.
While suffering their fourth straight loss with a 3-0 setback against the Pirates at PNC Park, the Braves squandered one of the finest efforts of Jurrjens' young career and each of the few opportunities they generated against Bucs starter Paul Maholm.
"It was a pitchers' duel tonight," Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "With that slider, Maholm had everybody kind of off balance. There's a reason he's their ace. [Jurrjens] pitched a [heck] of a game. ... But that's pretty much what happened."
Francoeur's third straight multihit performance was one of the offensive bright spots produced by the Braves, who went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and came up empty after loading the bases with nobody out against Maholm in the second inning.
Andy LaRoche's well-placed grounder in the second inning that plated Brandon Moss proved decisive for the Pirates, who extended their lead when Nate McLouth drilled a two-run homer off Mike Gonzalez in the eighth inning. While allowing four earned runs in his first five innings, Gonzalez has given the Braves reason to start utilizing the suddenly recharged Rafael Soriano as their closer.
After the game, Gonzalez stared into his locker, and Jurrjens stood next to him, attempting to explain how he could have lost after limiting the Pirates to just one run on four hits in 6 2/3 innings.
"That's the best I've seen him pitch since he's been here," Francoeur said of Jurrjens, who led the Braves with 13 wins during his strong rookie season last year.
Jurrjens certainly proved much more efficient than he had been while winning his first two starts of the season. While combining for 11 innings in those two outings, he allowed three earned runs and maddeningly issued eight walks. His only two walks during this career-high 120-pitch effort were issued to the final two Pirates batters whom he faced.
"Baseball is so crazy," Jurrjens said. "When you pitch bad, you win. You just need to go with it. I wish we could just have fun and get out of the funk that we're in."
The Braves have lost each of the four games that Jones has missed with a bruised left thumb. His presence might not have prevented the April 8 loss they suffered while scoring 11 runs in Philadelphia. But over the course of the past three games, Atlanta could have benefited from the presence of its veteran third baseman, who is aiming to return on Sunday.
"Obviously, our lineup shapes different when he's not in there," Francoeur said. "So that stinks. But that's part of the deal. We know that he's going to be out some times and we've got to step it up. You can't rely on one player to get you through the whole season. If you do that, you've got no shot at the playoffs. So, we've all just got to step it up a little bit."
After Francoeur notched the first of his three singles to help the Braves load the bases with nobody out in the second inning, it looked like Jurrjens was going to pitch with an early cushion. But Casey Kotchman followed with a pop fly in front of the plate and Jordan Schafer dribbled a comebacker that Maholm turned into an inning-ending double play.
Maholm, who allowed four hits in seven scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 0.87, was saved when Kotchman directed a pitch that landed just foul down the left-field line during that second-inning at-bat.
"We missed out in the second inning," manager Bobby Cox said. "We hit a ball foul by two inches that maybe scores all three runs. But it is a game of inches."
Schafer's double-play groundout prolonged his recent skid. After beginning his career with eight hits in his first 19 at-bats, the 22-year-old center fielder has recorded just one hit and struck out 11 times in the 18 at-bats that have followed.
The Braves' final squandered scoring opportunity came when Martin Prado, who was playing third base in place of Jones, lined out to end the eighth inning with runners at first and second base.
"It was just one of those nights," Cox said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.