Punchless Pirates fall to Jurrjens, Braves 2-0

A year ago, Charlie Morton admits he would have thought he "was like Cy Young" if he pitched the way he did in a 2-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night.

Not anymore. Seven solid innings is good, sure. It's just not good enough for one of the National League's biggest surprises.

"I look back and I think I pitched OK and I think that speaks to how far I've come," Morton said.

The 27-year-old continued his bounce-back year with another strong performance, allowing just two runs and striking out four, even if it wasn't enough to outduel Atlanta's dazzling Jair Jurrjens.

Jurrjens (6-1) shut down Pittsburgh over 7 2-3 innings, never allowing a Pirate to reach third base.

It was a command performance, but then again, Morton is used to it. He and Jurrjens came up in Atlanta's organization at the same time before the Braves shipped Morton to Pittsburgh in 2009.

"He was just dealing when I was there and I was just getting by," Morton said with a laugh.

Morton is doing considerably more than that these days. Following an awful 2010 when he went 2-12 and appeared to be on his way out of the majors, Morton has rediscovered his stuff and his confidence this spring.

He spent the offseason refining his mechanics and developing an effective sinker. Consider the Braves impressed.

"His stuff was really nasty," Atlanta's Jordan Schafer said. "I think he had a problem controlling his pitches (before) but he could pretty much pound the strike zone tonight. From everything I could see, he looked good. It looked like he has stuff going in the right direction."

Too bad Pittsburgh's offense appears to be heading the opposite way.

The Pirates have failed to score in 19 straight innings and didn't get a runner to third against Jurrjens.

Alex Gonzalez had three hits and scored a run for the Braves, who scratched out just enough offense to snap Morton's three-game winning streak.

"Luckily we had JJ going tonight because we haven't been scoring a lot of runs lately," Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "But when you get pitching like that — and our bullpen came in and shut it down — two runs was enough tonight."

Jurrjens made sure of it. The 25-year-old right-hander handcuffed the Pirates all night, needing just 97 pitches — 71 strikes — to drop his ERA to 1.56.

The Braves came to town on the last stop of a miserable road trip in which they dropped four out of five and put starting outfielders Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth on the disabled list with injuries.

Pittsburgh appeared to have found a groove last week, putting together a season-high four-game winning streak that pulled it within a game of .500. The Pirates scored 26 runs during the span but now haven't scored in four days.

Then again, Jurrjens didn't give them much of a chance.

"I think out of (his) pitches, there were maybe one or two that didn't hit the mark where (catcher Brian) McCann set up," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "So when you have that kind of command with all your pitches, you're going to be successful."

The Pirates' best chance came in the sixth when they managed to put two on with none out thanks to an infield hit and a walk, but Neil Walker popped to shortstop and Lyle Overbay hit into an inning-ending double play.

Pittsburgh didn't threaten again.

Atlanta pushed across a run in the second thanks to a rare flyball allowed by Morton. His rapidly developing sinker has made opponents beat the ball into the ground with regularity. More than 75 percent of his outs this season have come on groundballs, and while the Braves didn't get the ball in the air often, they made it count when they did.

Alex Gonzalez gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the second, coming home on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Conrad. The Braves made it 2-0 an inning later thanks to an RBI double by Martin Prado.

Atlanta had a chance to break it open in the fifth but Morton benefited from an overzealous fan.

Prado beat out a double-play attempt to keep the inning alive and Chipper Jones followed with a deep drive to right-center. A fan reached over the fence and tried to grab the ball with a baseball cap but it squirted free and dropped onto the field. Umpires awarded Jones a ground-rule double, forcing Prado to stop at third. The call was upheld on replay and Morton got out of the jam when McCann grounded out to first.

Morton said he didn't get rattled after the play, something that might have happened a season ago.

"Things could have gone the other way very quickly," he said. "But I think it's just a sign of maturity that they didn't."

NOTES: Atlanta 2B Dan Uggla didn't start for the first time this season but entered in the eighth as a defensive replacement. ... Braves RHP Tim Hudson's back is feeling much better. He will miss Wednesday's scheduled start with back pain but is expected to be available when his next turn in the rotation comes on May 30. ... Pittsburgh reliever Evan Meek pitched a scoreless ninth. Meek rejoined the club Sunday after spending time on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his right shoulder.