ATLANTA -- To hear Damaso Marte describe his confidence and command right now, it sounds so simple.
"There's me, and there's the catcher's glove. And we're not connecting."
No, but his pitches are connecting with bats, and solidly: He faced five Atlanta batters last night at Turner Field, and the first four homered, singled, singled and singled as part of the Braves' seven-run eighth inning.
That turned a one-run affair in which the Pirates were on the ascent into a 10-2 laugher of a loss.
Just as certain, it turned Marte plenty sour. Remember: It was his two walks in the opener Monday that began that monster ninth-inning collapse.
- Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:10 p.m., Turner Field, Atlanta.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Key matchup: Jeff Francouer, possibly on the cusp of a season in which he joins the National League's elite, is 5 for 8 vs. Duke, with a home run and two doubles.
- Of note: Hampton, now 35, will pitch in the majors for the first time since Aug. 19, 2005, finally back from two elbow surgeries. He did have a 2.16 ERA in five spring starts and, at times, looked dominant with 11 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings. But this surely will be different.
Two appearances, six runs.
"I'm throwing the ball, and it's not going where I want it to go," Marte said after taking a few minutes to himself on the clubhouse couch. "I'm usually not sharp early in any season, but something like this ... this only happened to me once before."
That was a brief spell with the Chicago White Sox early in 2005, but he bounced back to post a 3.77 ERA that year. Overall, he has a 4.33 career ERA in April, 1.77 in May.
Perhaps that knowledge will have a calming effect.
"I hope so. I don't know. Right now, everything is not working good. I just have to keep throwing the ball until I get back to how I want to throw."
Marte was among the game's best left-handed, one-out specialists in 2007, having held left-handed batters to 6 hits in 64 at-bats, an .094 average. But the Pirates' new management has, with his enthusiastic approval, pushed him to show he can retire right-handers, too, with an aim of becoming their primary setup man.
It has not shown yet, and it surely did not last night.
With the Pirates behind, 3-2, entering the eighth, Tyler Yates walked the leadoff man. Manager John Russell summoned Marte to turn switch-hitter Mark Teixeira to the right side and cut down his power.
Marte fell behind, 2-1, and came right at Teixeira with a flat fastball that was crushed into the center-field seats to extend Atlanta's lead to 5-2.
Next came the three singles, another run, an out ... and he was done.
"We were right there in the game," Russell said. "But that inning destroyed it. Obviously, he hasn't made the kind of pitches he wants the last couple nights."
Marte "threw pretty well" in the spring, Russell added, and a case can be made there, given the 1.29 ERA, eight strikeouts and no walks in seven innings. But Marte also gave up unsightly 11 hits.
At any rate, Russell issued a firm vote of confidence.
"He's a big part of our bullpen, and he needs to continue to go out there and get the job done."
Tom Gorzelanny had a so-so opening start, lasting only six innings because of 95 pitches. He allowed three runs on six hits, including Matt Diaz's solo home run in the fourth that put Atlanta ahead, 3-0.
Most relevant on this night, perhaps, he fell behind 14 of 25 batters and walked three.
"He was a little erratic," Russell said. "There were a lot of deep counts. But you've got to give him credit, too. He got out of some situations."
That was a reference to two early double plays in the first two innings.
"I made some quality pitches at the right time," Gorzelanny said. "But I was trying to overthrow a lot, and I was getting myself into situations that I didn't need to be in."
His counterpart, 22-year-old rookie Jair Jurrjens, went 5 1/3, allowing two runs on seven hits and a walk.
The Pirates were offered Jurrjens by Detroit in exchange for shortstop Jack Wilson leading up to the July 31 trading deadline, but previous management stunned the Tigers by rejecting it on the final day. A few months later, the Braves acquired him for shortstop Edgar Renteria.
A mistake by Dave Littlefield?
That will take years to tell, but this much is certain: Jurrjens showed a strong arm with 93-mph heat and a formidable changeup that he used liberally, one that looked stunningly similar to his fastball until the tail end.
"He pitched like a 10-year veteran," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said.
Still, the Pirates chased Jurrjens in the sixth on Xavier Nady's two-run single that cut the Braves' lead to 3-2 and Ryan Doumit's follow-up single.
"We were coming around," center fielder Nate McLouth said. "And it really felt like we were going to get that next one."
With Nady and Doumit aboard and one out, Jeff Bennett got Jose Bautista to ground into an inning-ending double play.
With two aboard and two outs in the Pirates' eighth, score still the same, Doumit flied out.
Overall, the Pirates had just seven hits, one for extra bases.
Evan Meek, the Rule 5 pick, made his major-league debut by inheriting Marte's mess in the bottom half and worsened it: He got one quick out, but Martin Prado singled, and Yuniel Escobar lined a three-run home run to center -- off a first-pitch, 91-mph fastball, well below Meek's advertised velocity -- to make it 10-2.
Anyone doubting that Meek was nervous needed only to see that his first warmup pitch sailed to the backstop, and the next two hit the dirt.
"I'll move on," he said. "It's good to get it out of the way."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published April 3, 2008 4:00 AM