The Pittsburgh Pirates closed a sub-par stretch within their own division on a high note, making it a bit easier to step away for the next three weeks.
The MLB-worst Atlanta Braves should make for an easy transition.
The Pirates open a 24-game run outside of the NL Central with Monday night's opener of a four-game series against the Braves, who are trudging through their latest slump.
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Pittsburgh (19-17) avoided a sweep at the hands of the Central-leading Chicago Cubs with Sunday's 2-1 victory, capping a 6-8 stretch within the division.
That span ended with a 4-4 trip, but the Pirates open a 10-game stay at PNC Park hoping to snap a four-game skid there. They are 12-11 against Central foes but won't face another until hosting St. Louis from June 10-12.
The Cubs pounded Pittsburgh for 17 runs in the first two games of their weekend set, but ace Gerrit Cole gave up just three hits in eight scoreless innings Sunday.
Jonathon Niese looks to take that momentum and turn it into the club's ninth win in 12 games against Atlanta (9-27), which enters riding a 2-8 slump.
Niese (3-2, 5.63 ERA) had coughed up 15 runs over 15 1/3 innings in three outings before settling in with his second quality start last Monday in Cincinnati. The left-hander gave up seven hits and three runs in 6 2/3 innings of a 3-2 loss. All the runs came on solo homers – the fourth time this season Niese has given up more than one.
“There's too many positives in this outing to dwell on the negatives,” he told MLB's official website. “The biggest negative was we lost. But there were a lot of positives. I'm going to take those and run with them and build off them for my next start.”
Niese faced Atlanta plenty during eight years with the New York Mets and netted mostly positive results. He is 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA in 22 starts against the Braves, and in his last nine he is 3-2 with a 2.30 ERA.
Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson are each 4 for 11 in the matchup, but Freddie Freeman is the Atlanta batter with the most experience against Niese. The slugging first baseman is 11 for 49 against him with two doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs.
The Braves counter with Williams Perez, who looks to continue making his pitch to remain in the starting rotation.
Perez (1-0, 3.54) failed to last five innings in his first three starts and was subsequently demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. But after getting recalled Wednesday to replace the traded Jhoulys Chacin, the right-hander delivered one of the best starts of his young career in a 5-1 win over Philadelphia.
Perez matched a career high with eight innings and held the Phillies to two hits and a solo homer in an efficient 85-pitch outing. He became the third Braves pitcher since 2000 to throw 85 or fewer in eight innings, joining Greg Maddux (twice) and Tom Glavine.
With Chacin shipped to the Los Angeles Angels that afternoon, Perez didn't make it to the ballpark until a few hours before first pitch.
“That's pretty incredible,” Freeman told MLB's official website. “They seem to do that throughout history, when you just don't know what's going to happen and you get called and you come to the big leagues, and next thing you know, you throw eight innings of one-run ball.”
During his rookie 2015 campaign, Perez faced the Pirates twice with poor results, giving up nine hits and six runs in 9 2/3 innings while walking and striking out seven.
The Pirates will be without left fielder Starling Marte, who was placed on the paternity list Monday and could miss up to three days. Marte went 12 for 33 on the just-completed road trip, lifting his average to .326 overall.