First B.J. Upton returned to the dugout. He watched a slider for called strike three.
Then Jason Heyward, who swung at a curveball in the dirt.
Finally Justin Upton completed the trifecta, swinging weakly at a slider.
James McDonald pounded his fist into his glove as he walked off the mound after striking out the side in the first inning. McDonald, the same McDonald who failed to finish the second inning in his previous start and spent the week fending off questions about his health, outpitched Paul Maholm in a 3-1 Pirates win at PNC Park Saturday night.
McDonald received help from his offense. Nobody who had faced Maholm this season discovered a way to squeeze a run across the plate. It took the Pirates some time, but they eventually turned to the power game. Gaby Sanchez hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth inning, ending Maholm's scoreless streak at 25 2/3 innings.
In addition to displaying the quality pitches that give him such potential, McDonald (2-2) on Saturday showed the inconsistency that has plagued him. Saturday, he overcame it.
He allowed only one run on two hits in six innings and looked like a completely different pitcher from his previous two outings. His fastball touched 93 miles per hour, though it still sat at 90-91. He threw his breaking pitches with confidence, locating them both for strikes and to induce swings.
In the second inning, McDonald displayed the dark side of his performance that has made itself apparent since the 2012 All-Star break. He hit Evan Gattis to lead off the inning and a double by Chris Johnson to the notch in left-center field -- that Starling Marte got a glove on but couldn't catch -- put men on second and third with none out.
McDonald walked the bases loaded, struck out Juan Francisco on three pitches, walked in a run and struck out the final two batters.
So up came the heart of the Braves' lineup, Heyward, Justin Upton and Gattis, in the third. McDonald forced Heyward to ground out weakly -- but walked Upton on four pitches. He recovered, forcing Gattis to fly out and Johnson to ground out and end the inning.
In the fifth inning, B.J. Upton lined a curveball to the wall in left field. Marte did not have to jump to catch the ball, but it looked like it could have found the first row if not for Marte. Jose Tabata ran down a line drive to right field off the bat of Justin Upton to end the inning.
Andrew McCutchen recorded the Pirates' first hit off Maholm when he doubled to the centerfield wall with two outs in the fourth. He stole third, but that's as far as he got.
Maholm found himself in slight trouble in the fifth after walking Russell Martin to lead off the inning. Neil Walker bunted for a single down the first-base line, but with men on first and second and no outs, Maholm struck out Michael McKenry, Clint Barmes and McDonald.
McCutchen's second double of the game tied the score at 1-1 in the sixth. Marte walked to lead off the inning and took second on Tabata's sacrifice bunt. McCutchen missed a home run by a few feet, roping one off the Clemente Wall in right field, and Marte scored easily.
Maholm worked a 1-2 count to Sanchez but left a fastball over the plate with his fourth pitch. Sanchez put it into the bushes in center field for his first home run of the season and the Pirates led, 3-1.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 21, 2013 1:45 AM