Braves-Pirates Preview

Charlie Morton was partly to blame for the Pittsburgh Pirates
finishing last in several pitching categories in 2010.

This year, however, he’s played a big role in helping their
starting rotation turn things around.

Looking to extend a career-best run by winning a fourth
consecutive outing, Morton takes the mound for Pittsburgh as it
opens a two-game set with the injury-riddled Atlanta Braves on
Tuesday night at PNC Park.

Morton finished last season 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA and was part of
a Pirates rotation that ranked last in the majors in wins (34), ERA
(5.28) and strikeouts (540).

Pittsburgh (22-24), though, has benefited from a much-improved
staff and had won a season-best four straight while its starters
went 4-0 before Paul Maholm was tagged with the loss in a 2-0
defeat to Detroit on Sunday.

“We want to beat the odds,” outfielder Andrew McCutchen said.
“We want to be the team that turns things around. That’s what I
feel that we have, that’s what I feel we’re shooting for. And we’re
doing a pretty good job at it.”

The Pirates have allowed eight runs in their last five games, a
stretch Morton (5-1, 2.62 ERA) started by limiting Cincinnati to
five hits while posting his second career shutout in a 5-0 road win
Wednesday.

“I thought he threw great,” Reds first baseman and reigning NL
MVP Joey Votto told MLB.com. “He’s done everything a pitcher is
taught to do. It doesn’t look like he’ll go back to the way he was
last year. It looks like he’s made real strides and has become a
much better pitcher.”

The right-hander, who was acquired by Pittsburgh via trade from
Atlanta in 2009, has won all three of his starts this month while
recording a 2.05 ERA. He is 1-0 with a 1.74 mark in three home
outings this year.

Morton, who lost to the Braves last May 22 despite allowing just
two earned runs in six innings, will look to add to his former
team’s recent road woes. After getting swept in a two-game series
at Arizona, Atlanta lost two of three at the Los Angeles Angels,
including Sunday’s 4-1 defeat.

The Braves (26-23) have been outscored 24-11 during their 1-4
stretch, and things aren’t likely to get any easier without
slugging right fielder Jason Heyward, who was placed on the 15-day
DL on Sunday with recurring soreness in his right shoulder.

Center fielder Nate McLouth, who spent four-plus seasons with
Pittsburgh before getting shipped to Atlanta as the main piece in
the Morton deal, left Sunday’s affair with a strained left oblique.
McLouth, mired in a 1-for-19 slump over his last six games, is
uncertain to play.

“Teams that can survive the injury bug are going to be there at
the end, and we’re going through that right now a little bit,”
manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But I think this team, mentally, is
going to survive that.”

Braves starters recorded an 8.62 ERA in Anaheim, but a more
effective performance seems likely from Jair Jurrjens (5-1,
1.80).

Jurrjens had gone 5-0 with a 1.66 ERA in his first six starts
prior to Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Diamondbacks, during which he
gave up two runs and eight hits in 6 2-3 innings.

The right-hander, who has yet to allow more than two earned runs
in any outing in 2011, has lost his last three meetings with the
Pirates despite posting a 3.06 ERA. He hasn’t faced them since
2009.