PITTSBURGH -- The Atlanta Braves lost a game they badly needed to win. Even worse, they lost to a Pirates team whose only apparent goal appears to be avoiding the franchise's worst season in nearly 50 years.
Neil Walker hit a two-run homer, Brian Burres limited Atlanta to one run over six innings in his first start in more than three months and the Pirates beat the can't-get-hot Braves 3-1 on Monday.
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Despite losing its fourth in five games, Atlanta was assured of remaining in first place in the NL East for at least another day when Florida beat Philadelphia 7-1 in the first game of a day-night doubleheader. The Braves own a one-game lead over the Phillies.The Braves have led the division every day since May 31, but have lost six games off that edge since July 22.Lost their confidence, too? They say not so."I think a characteristic of our team is confidence," said Matt Diaz, who had two of Atlanta's eight hits. "We don't really have a strut on the field and but we definitely have a swagger in the locker room, and we're not losing confidence at all. We know we go in the division and control our fate. That's the beauty of being the team that the other team's chasing -- whether it's one game or 10 games."Atlanta had won five of its previous six against Pittsburgh and likely was looking to this three-game series as a way to get untracked. But the Braves did almost nothing against Burres (3-3), who limited them to David Ross' sacrifice fly in the second during his first start since losing to Atlanta 6-3 on May 29.Keeping the Braves off balance with an assortment of offspeed pitches mixed in with a fastball that topped out at 90 mph, Burres made his best start since shutting out the Cubs for seven innings on May 6. The left-hander spent much of the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, and started Monday only because Jeff Karstens has arm and shoulder fatigue."I felt like when I needed to, I could make a good pitch," said Burres, who might remain in the rotation. "I didn't always get ahead of the hitters, but I'd get out of it with a good pitch."Joel Hanrahan pitched the ninth inning for his fourth save in seven opportunities.Tommy Hanson (9-11) held the Pirates to an unearned run over five innings before Jose Tabata singled to start the sixth, and Walker followed with a drive to straightaway center that made it 3-1. Walker's 10th homer extended his hitting streak to 13 games (22 for 57, .386)."I saw Jose was running on the pitch and I felt like it was one of the best pitches I'd seen all day," Walker said. "He was hitting his spots pretty good and left a pitch out over the plate, and I felt like I could do something with it."Walker, a late May call-up, has been one the few pleasant surprises during a mostly miserable season in which the Pirates are on pace to lose 108 games -- the most since they dropped 112 in 1952. Walker is hitting .313 as a rookie, shows good power and is an above-average fielder despite playing second base for only a handful of games in the minors.Before giving up the homer, Hanson was convinced he was en route to making one of his best starts all season."It's probably the best I've felt warming up," said Hanson, who allowed four hits over six innings. "It was just that one inning. Other than the fastball [to Walker], I don't think it could have gotten much better. Just that one pitch, and it was definitely a big pitch."After Burres left, the Braves had their chances against relievers Chris Resop and Evan Meek, but couldn't score while stranding 11 runners overall.Resop, claimed on waivers from Atlanta on Aug. 5, walked two to load the bases following Nate McLouth's single, but got Martin Prado to ground out to end the threat. Prado, batting .313, was hitless in five at-bats and is 1 for 17 in PNC Park this season.The Braves put two on with one out in the eighth. Meek, pitching for the first time since being bruised on the right hand by Ryan Braun's line drive Aug. 29 in Milwaukee, then retired pinch-hitter Brian McCann and McLouth on grounders."We had hits and we had runners, we just couldn't get the big hit to get back into the game," manager Bobby Cox said. "We thought we were going to get it just about every inning, but it never happened."
The Braves expect to recall RH relievers Christhian Martinez and Craig Kimbrel from Triple-A Gwinnett on Tuesday. ... Hanson, coming off a 4-1 victory over the Mets on Wednesday, hasn't won consecutive starts since May 30-June 5. He has dropped six of seven decisions. ... McLouth, a former NL All-Star with Pittsburgh, started for a second successive day because Cox felt he might be comfortable in PNC Park. McLouth is batting .169.