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Bucs bats blanked by Braves

Charlie Morton turned in another sterling performance, allowing seven hits and two runs over seven innings, but Atlanta’s Jair Jurrjens one-upped him, shutting down the Pirates on just six hits in 7 2/3 innings as the Braves topped the Bucs 2-0 at PNC Park on Tuesday night.

Looking to establish a new career high in wins while facing off against his former team Tuesday night, Charlie Morton pitched well enough to beat most any pitcher.

Jair Jurrjens, however, is no ordinary mound opponent.

Morton went seven-plus innings against the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park, allowing just a pair of runs while racking up 13 ground ball outs. But Jurrjens was the one earning his sixth win of the season, pitching into the eighth inning and then handing off the Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel as the Braves shut out the Pirates 2-0. Jurrjens lowered his ERA to 1.56 in the process, the lowest among all qualified starting pitchers in the majors.

“It was a well-pitched game on both sides,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Another starter in back-to-back games for us on the other team that came out, threw strikes and pounded the zone. He was ahead in a lot of counts and he kept the ball down.”

Jurrjens (6-1) surrendered six hits in 7.2 innings pitched, striking out four batters and walking one. The 25-year-old right-hander from Curacao tossed 71 of his 97 pitches for strikes.

“You want to be aggressive, but it’s tough when his first-pitch changeup is on the black and his first-pitch fastball is on the black,” Garrett Jones said. “You’re not getting too many pitches to hit, but he’s throwing strikes. He had good movement on his fastball, a little run and a little sink, and he just kept the ball away from our barrel.”

Morton (5-2) gave up seven hits on the night, whiffing four hitters while walking three (one intentionally).

Atlanta (27-23) plated its first run in the second inning. Alex Gonzalez singled and then advanced to third base on an opposite-field single from Freddy Freeman with the hit-and-run on. Brooks Conrad hit a sac fly to right field to make it 1-0 Braves.

The Braves tacked on another run in the third. Martin Prado pulled an inside sinker down the left field line for a double that allowed Jordan Schafer, who drew a leadoff walk, to score from first.

“I think [Morton] was a little quick tonight at times,” Hurdle said. “But you talk about a guy taking the ball through seven and pitching the way he did. That was very impressive.”

“He kept his emotions in check. We talked about some of that before the game. He’s learning how to pitch without his best stuff, sometimes without his secondary pitches as well.”

With six left-handed hitters in the Braves’ lineup, however, Morton knew he had to show something other than his sinker.

“I was throwing more off-speed [to left-handed hitters], which I really wasn’t used to,” Morton said. “The approach has to be different, because lefties happen to hit better against [the sinker].”

Entering Tuesday’s start, Morton had held right-handed hitters to a .178 slugging percentage. Lefties, though, had slugged .538 against him.

“When I’m throwing it to lefties, I feel like I’m pressing a little bit more,” Morton said. “I’m trying to locate the pitch more as opposed to just keeping it down.”

Against the Braves, it was actually the righties doing most of the damage. Morton held Atlanta’s lefties to a combined 2-for-16 at the plate.

“It was another step forward for Charlie,” Hurdle said. ‘[Left-handed] hitters were stacked up against him, and that was another good experience for him because that’s going to happen again. More and more teams are going to try to find a way to do that when they have him.”

The Pirates (22-25) had a few chances to push runs across the plate against Jurrjens, but came up empty. Braves first baseman Freeman made a diving snag on a Ronny Cedeno line drive hit the other way with runners on first and second and two outs in the second inning.

Morton came to the plate in the fifth frame with one out, looking to lay down a sac bunt and advance Chris Snyder and Cedeno to second and third base. He popped up the bunt attempt instead, and third baseman Chipper Jones made a diving snag in foul territory for the out. Andrew McCutchen popped out to second base to end the inning.

In the sixth, Jose Tabata singled on a grounder that deflected off Jurrjens’ glove and Garrett Jones followed with a four-pitch walk, putting runners on first and second with no outs. But Neil Walker popped out to the shortstop and Lyle Overbay hit a grounder back to Jurrjens, who started the 1-6-3- double play.

“A couple big hits and we have two runs on the board, or three,” Jones said. “For whatever reason we just couldn’t get it going. You tip your cap to [Jurrjens]. He pitched well.”

“We haven’t been swinging the bat the way we can over the past few games,” Jones said. “We’ll just show up tomorrow and try to turn it around as quick as possible.”

In the fifth inning, Chipper Jones swatted a first-pitch fastball from Morton to right-center field with two outs and Prado running on the play. An overzealous fan tried to snag an in-play souvenir, however, and Jones was credited with a ground-rule double. The play was reviewed, and the call on the field stood.

“That ball was gonna hit off the fence, but [the fan] reached down and with his hat and almost caught it,” Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones said. “It actually helped us because it kept that runner from scoring from first, so it saved us a run.”

Morton got the next batter, Brian McCann, to ground out to end the inning.

Making his first appearance with the Pirates since being activated from the disabled list on Sunday, Evan Meek struck out the side in the top of the ninth inning. Meek, who was sidelined with shoulder tendinitis and also battled a viral infection and a strained right calf earlier this spring, got Joe Mather, Wilkin Ramirez and Jordan Schafer swinging on just 13 pitches.

“A good outing for Evan, no doubt,” Hurdle said. “For him to go out and throw his complement of pitches and have the inning he did has to be good for his confidence.”

“I just went out there and tried to get ahead in the count,” Meek said. “I was anxious and a little bit nervous going out there, but more excited than anything.”

Meek topped out a 94 MPH on the radar gun, but sat several ticks lower than that for the most part.

“Honestly, I looked at a few pitches and I saw like 90, 91, 92 [MPH], and I was like, ‘ugh,'” Meek said with a smile. “But that’s going to come. It was my first outing back. I’m just concerned about coming back tomorrow and making sure my arm feels good and strong.”

With a scoreless eighth inning of relief against the Braves Tuesday night, Joe Beimel made his 95th career appearance at PNC Park, breaking a tie with Mike Gonzalez for sole possession of sixth place on the all-time list. Next up for Beimel is Damaso Marte, who ranks fifth with 103 appearances.

The Braves hobbled into Pittsburgh without two-thirds of the club’s starting outfield. Atlanta placed right fielder Jason Heyward (right shoulder) and center fielder Nate McLouth (left oblique) on the 15-day disabled list. McLouth’s injury denied him a chance to pick up his first hit against Charlie Morton, one of the players for whom he was traded from Pittsburgh to Atlanta in June of 2009. McLouth has gone 0-for-3 with a walk in four career plate appearances versus Morton. The Bucs also picked up outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and left-hander Jeff Locke in the McLouth deal.

To fill the outfield void, the Braves purchased the contract of outfielder Wilkin Ramirez from Triple-A Gwinnett, and recalled outfielder Jordan Schafer from Triple-A Gwinnett. Reliever Peter Moylan (recovery from back surgery) was transferred to the 60-day disabled list to make room for Ramirez on the Braves’ 40-man roster.

Ramirez, 25, is a former Detroit Tigers prospect who has a career .241 batting average, .307 on-base percentage and a .423 slugging percentage in parts of four seasons at the Triple-A level. The right-handed hitter appeared in 15 games with Detroit during the 2009 season.

Schafer ranked as a top-25 prospect prior to the 2008 season, according to Baseball America, but the lefty-swinger has struggled mightily at the highest level of the minors (.227/.279/.296 in parts of three years at Triple-A) and has been plagued by a left wrist injury that required surgery in September of 2009. The 24-year-old batted .204/.313/.287 in 195 plate appearances with Atlanta in 2009.

Left-hander Mike Minor (0-1, 10.38 ERA) will make his second start of the 2011 season Wednesday at 12:35 p.m. when he takes on James McDonald (3-3, 5.51 ERA). Tim Hudson was originally supposed to start for the Braves on Tuesday, but he was scratched with lower back stiffness.

Minor, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Vanderbilt, has a 45/15 K/BB ratio in 45 career frames in the majors. But he has a sky-high 6.40 ERA due to some very bad luck: his career batting average on balls in play is .386, while the major league average is closer to .290.

McDonald’s second month of the 2011 season has been much better than his first. After posting a 15/16 K/BB ratio in 24.2 innings during April, J-Mac has struck out 24 and walked seven in 22.2 innings in May.

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