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Pirates fall to Atlanta in extra innings

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Brooks Conrad hit a two-run pinch-hit homer off Jeff Karstens in the top of the 11th inning to lead the Braves over the Pirates 4-2 Wednesday afternoon at PNC Park. Steve Pearce had three hits for the Pirates, including a solo homer that tied the game at 2 in the seventh inning

When Steve Pearce entered the Pirates' clubhouse Wednesday and looked at the lineup, he did a double-take. He would hit second, a spot that he had batted out of in the majors just once before. And he was starting at third base for just the fourth time.

"It was a double-whammy," Pearce said.

Pearce's improbable afternoon continued when he erased Braves leads twice, driving in both of the Bucs' runs as a 2-2 game entered the bottom of the ninth.

Bases loaded. One out. Guess who was up?

Pearce's dream game ended on a sour note, however, as he grounded into an inning-ending double play. Brooks Conrad would get the glory on this day, belting a two-run, pinch-hit homer off Jeff Karstens in the eleventh inning to give the Braves a 4-2 win at PNC Park. It was Conrad's first homerun of the season.

Pearce went 3-for-5 while hitting his first home run of the season and James McDonald turned in another strong outing, but those efforts went to waste as the Pirates (22-26) stranded 15 runners on base.

"It was a snap shot of what could have been," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were set up to put a game away, but we just couldn't do it."

Pearce, who tied the game 1-1 on an RBI single in the third inning and ripped a solo home run just inside the left field foul pole in the seventh to knot the contest at two apiece, had a chance to earn the Pirates a series split in the ninth after a defensive miscue by the Braves (28-23).

Lyle Overbay drew a leadoff walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Pedro Ciriaco. Braves reliever Jonny Venters got Ronny Cedeno to tap a weak grounder back to the mound. Venters fielded the roller and tossed to second to start a double play, but both Dan Uggla and Alex Gonzalez converged on the bag. Their gloves collided and the ball bounced off Gonzalez's leather, giving the Pirates runners on first and second with no outs.

Pinch-hitter Chris Snyder put down a sac bunt to advance the runners to second and third, and Jose Tabata was intentionally walked to bring Pearce to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.

Venters unleashed a 96 MPH pitch that tailed inside. Pearce chopped to third baseman Chipper Jones, who started the 5-2-3 double play to end the inning.

"That's a tough at-bat, man," Pearce said. "I was looking for a pitch to drive and felt like I got it, but it sunk pretty hard and I rolled over. I felt good at the plate, but it's just unfortunate that I didn't get a chance to help the team win."

Daniel McCutchen, Jose Veras and Joel Hanrahan threw scoreless innings for the Pirates in relief of McDonald, who limited the Braves to two runs in six frames. Karstens, throwing on his fifth day after two off days this week, did the same in the tenth inning. But the Braves, who stranded 13 runners of their own on Wednesday, finally broke through in the eleventh.

Brian McCann singled to right field with one out and was replaced by pinch-runner Wilkin Ramirez, bringing pinch-hitter Conrad to the plate. Karstens got ahead in thecount, 1-2, and then spotted a slider on the outside corner. Conrad golfed the breaking ball over the right-center field wall for a 4-2 Braves advantage. Karstens took the loss and dropped to 3-3.

"He caught it off the barrel," Hurdle said. "He was out on front, his hands stayed back and he got the barrel to it. Sometimes they hit good pitches. Our pitchers pitched extremely well again today, starting with James and really all the way through. We had some opportunities on offense. We've got to find a way to pick up our pitchers more than we have seven weeks into the season."

Craig Kimbrel finished off the Bucs in the bottom half of the inning, retiring Xavier Paul, Ciriaco and Cedeno in order.

Atlanta looked poised to break the game open against McDonald from the get-go, beginning the game with three straight hits off him and plating a run on a Chipper Jones single. But McDonald, who labored through 27 pitches in the opening frame, settled down and allowed just an Eric Hinske solo shot in the sixth the rest of the way.

McDonald gave up six hits in six innings pitched, striking out six hitters and walking one. The right-hander ditched his two-seam fastball and changeup on Wednesday, preferring to attack Braves batters with a souped-up four-seamer and a sharp curveball.

Averaging better than 93 MPH with his heater and topping out at 95 on the gun, McDonald threw 50 of his 66 four-seam fastballs for strikes while getting seven Atlanta hitters to whiff at the pitch. His curveball was nasty, too, as McDonald recorded five of his six Ks with the offering.

"He started mowing people down and got into a very good rhythm out of the windup," Hurdle said. "Downhill plane on his fastball, command of his breaking ball. He's fun to watch when he gets it rolling like that."

Mike Minor started for the Braves in place of Tim Hudson, who was scratched due to lower back stiffness. The left-hander, taken out of Vanderbilt with the seventh pick in the 2009 draft, struck out five Pirates, walked two (one intentionally) and allowed seven hits, allowing one run in 5.2 innings pitched. Spotting a 90-93 MPH fastball and low-80s changeup adeptly, Minor threw 65 of his 90 pitches for strikes.

Atlanta's bullpen, sporting the second-lowest ERA in the majors, allowed just Pearce's solo homer off Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh. Venters threw two scoreless innings and George Sherrill worked a clean tenth before Kimbrel slammed the door. Sherill got the win to improve to 1-0.  

"We wanted this game. We needed this game," Pearce said. "It would have been nice to take some momentum on to the road, but it didn't happen. We've got to find some way to pull together and go get 'em in Chicago."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle switched up the batting order on Wednesday, penciling Jose Tabata in the leadoff spot, inserting Steve Pearce in the two-hole and shifting Andrew McCutchen to third in the lineup. Hurdle began the season batting Tabata at the top of the order and McCutchen third, before opting to place Tabata second and lead off with McCutchen.

Perhaps the biggest reason for James McDonald's dominant May is a drastically better four-seam fastball.

In April, McDonald threw his four-seamer for a strike 63.9 percent of the time, and got hitters to whiff at the pitch 4.2 percent. During May, McDonald has thrown his heater for strikes 70.9 percent while inducing whiffs at an 11.1 percent clip. The major league average strike percentage for four-seamers is 64.4 percent, and the average whiff rate is six percent.

McDonald said that he feels much better than he did in April, when he was trying to regain strength after missing part of spring training with an injury to his left side.

"My arm is feeling a little more alive," McDonald said. "I feel like I'm starting to hit that peak where I get the arm strength that I know I have and I can throw a fastball by somebody or get a ground ball.

"I feel a lot better. Mechanics-wise, timing-wise, everything feels better."

On May 25, 2010, the Pirates promoted Neil Walker to the majors for good. Since then, the Pine Richland native and 2004 first-round pick has been one of the better second basemen in the game. Walker ranks eleventh among those playing the keystone spot over that time frame in Wins Above Replacement, a stat that measures a player's offensive and defensive value compared to a replacement-level player at his position.

To open up a spot on the active roster for Minor, the Braves optioned right-handed reliever Jairo Asencio to Triple-A Gwinnett prior to Wednesday afternoon's game. Originally signed by the Pirates out of the Dominican Republic back in 2001, Asencio inked with Atlanta as a minor league free agent prior to the 2008 season.

Following a travel day tomorrow, the Pirates begin a two-city, seven-game road trip through the North Side of Chicago and Queens. Kevin Correia (6-4, 3.84 ERA) will oppose lefty Doug Davis (0-2, 8.31 ERA) at 1:20 Central Time on Friday at Wrigley Field. Correia has gotten roughed up of late, surrendering 13 runs in 17 innings spanning his last three starts. Davis, 35, latched on with the Cubs in April after missing most of the 2010 season with inflammation in the lining of his heart and an elbow injury that required off-season surgery.

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