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PIT@ATL: Alvarez's blast gives the Bucs a 4-2 lead

ATLANTA -- The Pittsburgh lineup doctor was in. And Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wrote out the right prescription Monday to heal the deal.

He pored over his charts and videos, mixed and matched and shuffled. Josh Harrison and Yamaico Navarro went in, Pedro Alvarez was the one left-handed batter who stayed in. At first, it wasn't clear whether Hurdle was trying to solve Atlanta southpaw Mike Minor, or to please him.

Because, what resulted was a Pirates lineup that had the undesirable Mendoza Line on its wish list. Three entries were batting well below .200, with another (Alvarez) right on the line.

The method to Hurdle's madness became quickly and dramatically clear, as the Bucs leveled the Braves, 9-3, with major contributions from each of those who started the game on the so-called Interstate (a batting average that begins with "1").

That's right. After a team-record, season-opening 21 straight games without topping five runs, the Bucs soared over it with the lineup stitched together by Dr. Hurdle.

"Ecstatic!" was Hurdle's first response when asked about that very crooked number put on the scoreboard by his makeshift lineup. "You know, sometimes it happens like that. I give credit to my coaching staff -- they pushed me in that direction."

The 10-12 Pirates have alternated wins and losses for 11 straight games, their longest see-saw ride since doing so for 12 consecutive games from May 26-June 7, 2002.

Harrison's single in the third got the Bucs on the board for the first time.

Alvarez continued to careen in his U-turn, pulling the lefty Minor into the right-field seats for the tie-breaking two-run homer in the fourth.

Navarro drilled his two-run homer in the sixth-inning that cleared the five-run bar for the first time, and he drove in a third run on a seventh-inning grounder.

Harrison and Navarro, who entered batting a combined .097 in the series (3-for-31), went 3-for-8 with four RBIs between them.

And all along, James McDonald benefited from an offensive awakening he, in a sense, had inspired.

"We can't take anything away from James -- he pitched a great game and kept us in it," Harrison said. "But me and Yamaico came up in some pretty big situations, and were able to deliver timely hits."

McDonald went 7 2/3 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs while setting a pair of career highs: 10 strikeouts and 114 pitches. He'd previously reached nine K's and had twice hit the 109-pitch mark.

"There's no difference from 90 to 115. It feels the same," said McDonald, whose quiet demeanor fails to convey the personal satisfaction he is feeling over his ongoing maturation as a reliable big league starter.

The second inning was huge for McDonald. Not only because he already trailed 2-0 -- on Freddie Freeman's two-run homer in the first -- but because the Bucs needed a jolt after misfiring on a favorable scoring opportunity in the top of the inning. Men on first and third, no outs -- and it imploded on Navarro's popout and Alvarez's double-play grounder.

After the Braves put men on second and third with one out, McDonald had to respond in kind. And he did. He threw a called third strike to Minor, then got Michael Bourn to ground to second.

"Anytime you get out of a tough situation, it's a big turning point. It's good for the team," McDonald said.

"That was big for him," Harrison nodded. "He was battling and we knew it was only a matter of time until we got something going. We were getting opportunities and it was just a matter of cashing some of them in."

The Pirates' offense immediately answered the reveille sounded by McDonald. Harrison's RBI single and Andrew McCutchen's sacrifice fly comprised the game-tying third. When Navarro singled and Alvarez followed with his fifth homer in the fourth, the Bucs had a 4-2 lead.

Pulling that shot off a tough left-hander was the latest, loudest sign of Alvarez's awakening. It was only the second homer Minor has allowed to a lefty hitter in 127 career at-bats.

"I know his swing and I know how good he is," Minor said of Alvarez, his former college teammate at Vanderbilt. "The last couple games he hit doubles and now he homered. I think he'll come around."

Splitting the four-game series with the Braves -- who entered it having won 14 of 18 -- sent the Pirates on to St. Louis in a good frame of mind.

"I'll tell you what pleases me," Hurdle said. "By the 12th pitch of the game, we're down 2-0. Then we have a golden opportunity to come back, and we miss it. Then we get another shot, and we come back again, tie it, go ahead -- and add on."

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