The Atlanta Braves played to their strengths Thursday night.
Their strength also happened to be a weakness of Jeff Locke, and they took advantage. They didn't stop when Jared Hughes took the mound either.
The Braves hit three home runs off Locke and four total to beat the Pirates, 6-4, at PNC Park in the first of four games the Pirates play against the hottest team in baseball.
Evan Gattis hit a pinch-hit, two-run home run against Hughes in the eighth inning to break a 4-4 tie.
"I just fell behind him and the ball was in but it didn't really sink," said Hughes, who took the loss. "It kind of hung there. He did a good job of getting his hands inside of it and hitting it hard."
The matchup of the right-handed Hughes, a sinker-baller, and the right-handed Gattis was about as good as the Pirates could have hoped for.
"We felt of anybody on our bench at the time, he was going to give a pretty good at-bat," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He wasn't going to chase that sinker into the dirt. He got a good pitch to hit. He didn't hit it real well -- it got in on him a bit. But he's such a big, strong guy that he hit it out."
The Braves improved to 13-2. The Pirates offense continued to produce -- Russell Martin and Pedro Alvarez homered and Travis Snider went 2 for 4 to extend his hitting streak to six games -- but could not overcome the back end of the Braves bullpen. Anthony Varvaro (1-0), Eric O'Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel shut out the Pirates in the final four innings.
With the arrival of the Braves came four games against the best pitching staff in the majors so far this season. The Braves entered Thursday's game with a 1.77 team ERA and a .206 opponent batting average, both major league bests. Their bullpen had a league-leading 1.36 ERA.
Locke exited after 42/3 innings when he walked two consecutive batters. He allowed four runs on six hits and walked four with three strikeouts.
The Braves win with the home run. They out-homered their opponents, 25-7, entering Thursday's game and until a 1-0 loss Wednesday to the Kansas City Royals, they enjoyed a 10-game winning streak. They have not lost when scoring at least one run.
They faced a perfect opponent in Locke, for whom home runs have been an issue in his major league career. The major league average in 2012 of home runs per nine innings was 1. Locke allowed 1.6 home runs per nine innings from 2011-12, though he allowed only one in 11 innings this season before Thursday.
"He has not been ahead of the counts he needs to be ahead of to pitch competitively up here," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's really been a tough battle to pitch behind in counts here and have success."
Locke put B.J. Upton in an 0-2 count to start the game, then threw a belt-high fastball over the middle of the plate. Upton smacked it into the bleachers in left field for his second home run of the season.
"Leading off the game, he's protecting the plate, 0-2," Locke said. "He sees that fastball coming out, he's ready and raring to go.
"You got to make somebody hit your pitch."
Locke left another fastball up and over the plate, this one to Chris Johnson in the third, and Johnson hit a two-run home run to dead center to give the Braves a 3-2 lead.
Justin Upton, who led the majors in home runs with eight entering the game, erased a tie in the fifth. He hit a 3-1 changeup that was low but over the plate off the rotunda in left field, giving the Braves a 4-3 lead.
"I felt like it was one of the best changeups I threw the whole night," Locke said. "It just looked like he knew what it was right out of the hand.
"I feel like on that pitch right there, he beat me. On the other homers, I beat myself."
Braves starter Julio Teheran left a fastball of his own up in the zone against Alvarez in the fourth. Teheran put his 0-1 pitch off the plate on the outside corner, but Alvarez smoked it 448 feet off the batter's eye in center field. His first home run of the season tied the score at 3-3.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 19, 2013 4:00 AM