LaRoche breaks out to back Maholm
Third baseman's play lifts lefty ace in win over Braves
PITTSBURGH -- It won't show up in the box score, but Andy LaRoche finally had the type of performance that can provide him something positive to build on.
Hours after manager John Russell took LaRoche aside to reiterate his confidence in the young third baseman, LaRoche keyed the Pirates' 3-0 win over the Braves at PNC Park on Friday with his bat and his glove work behind starter Paul Maholm, who was his usual impressive self.
"This is just a small step right now," LaRoche said. "I'm still trying to get back. But I felt good tonight."
If ever someone needed a game to build confidence, it was LaRoche, who entered the game with three errors and only one hit in 20 at-bats this season. He had broken an 0-for-18 string in Thursday's game, and though he only had one hit on Friday, his impact was felt throughout the night.
Russell, who sat LaRoche three times in the first seven games, talked to him before the opening of the three-game series against Atlanta. And LaRoche spent some time with hitting coach Don Long on Friday afternoon to tweak his approach.
It all paid off, as LaRoche responded to both messages.
"I told him to relax and not panic, because we're not," Russell said. "He's a good player. He just needs to let what he can do come out, and tonight he showed that."
On the offensive end, LaRoche's one hit -- a leadoff single in the fifth -- proved to be a non-factor. But his groundout three innings earlier pushed across what proved to be the only run Maholm needed to secure his second win of the season.
Like Freddy Sanchez had done off Atlanta starter Jair Jurrjens one inning earlier, Brandon Moss hustled his way to third when his one-out base hit in the second caromed off the center-field wall just far enough away from Atlanta center fielder Jordan Schafer.
"I told [third-base coach Tony] Beasley that people are going to think I'm fast," Moss said. "I'm really not. I'm slow. I wasn't thinking triple all the way, not until I saw that ball get away."
The Pirates had been unable to get Sanchez 90 feet further in the first, but LaRoche ensured that the second such opportunity wouldn't go untapped.
He knocked a grounder that looked to be headed up the middle for a single until Atlanta second baseman Kelly Johnson showed his defensive range and threw out LaRoche at first. But it was more than enough to get Moss home from third. That held up as the only run of the game until Nate McLouth provided some cushion with a two-run homer in the eighth, his third long ball of the season.
"I felt good at the plate today," LaRoche said. "I felt like my approach was a little bit better. I opened up a little bit more today so I could see the ball better."
From there, LaRoche made his mark defensively as Maholm worked to protect that one-run lead. LaRoche caught a line drive in the fourth that he turned into an inning-ending double play. He ended the sixth by making a defensive stop on his knees.
And he made a diving stop on a ground ball hit by Atlanta's Casey Kotchman in the seventh. LaRoche then hopped to his knees and threw Kotchman out.
Remember, it was fewer than two weeks ago that LaRoche began the season with three errors in the team's first two games.
"Obviously, the first couple games, I didn't look so good," said LaRoche, who hasn't made an error since the second game of the year. "When you have a guy like him up there pounding the zone and getting his ground balls, it's great. It speeds the whole game up and keeps everyone more [focused] defensively."
Defense definitely was one of the themes of the night, much to the benefit of Maholm.
"Ever since May of last year, he's been unhittable," said McLouth, who, in addition to the homer, contributed a diving catch with a runner on second in the third. "You can't describe how much easier it is to play defense behind a guy like that."
After allowing just one earned run in each of his first two starts of the year, Maholm tossed seven scoreless frames on Friday. He was effective, yes, but not all of those zeros came easily. Fortunately, he held the Braves to 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
"He found a way to get outs," Russell said. "I thought he battled really well without the command that he has shown. He has enough weapons to get through things like that."
There was no jam greater than the one Maholm faced in the second inning, when he worked out of a bases-loaded, no-outs situation. The infield fly rule was called to get the first out of the inning. Maholm then started an inning-ending double play when Schafer tapped the ball back to the pitcher's mound.
"I was in the right part of the order to get out of it and that was my mindset," said Maholm, who lowered his ERA to 0.87. "To get out with zero, I think that kept the momentum with us."
Maholm uncharacteristically hit two batters and walked three, but he limited Atlanta to just four hits, all singles. And he outpitched Jurrjens, who gave up nothing more than that one second-inning run in his 6 2/3 innings.
John Grabow and closer Matt Capps then sealed the win for the lefty.
"I made my pitches when I needed to," said Maholm, who has pitched three of the staff's seven quality starts this season. "Overall, if you go seven and you give up zero, even if you battle, it's a good game."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.