PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald followed one of the worst starts of his career with one of his best and manager Clint Hurdle wonders whether it might be a turning point in the 28-year-old right-hander's career.
McDonald overpowered the Atlanta Braves for six innings Saturday night and Gaby Sanchez capped a three-run sixth inning with a two-run homer in a 3-1 victory at PNC Park.
McDonald (2-2) had nine strikeouts and allowed only one run and two hits to hand the Braves (13-4), who have the best record in the major leagues, consecutive losses for the first time this season.
Five days earlier, McDonald was ripped for eight runs in 1 2/3 innings in a loss to St. Louis. That led to speculation that McDonald's grip on a spot in the rotation might be tenuous, especially with starters Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton currently on minor-league injury assignments.
Hurdle and McDonald had a long talk the day after the debacle against the Cardinals.
"At some point, you have to take ownership of your career," Hurdle said. "James has the ability, he has the talent, but sometimes he's like two different people. At some point, you need to start being more consistent and the type of guy that your team and your teammates can rely on. Hopefully, James is finally the message. There have been some good signs over the last few days."
McDonald (2-2) ramped up his between-starts routine this past week. He went in the weight room more and approached his last side throwing session with more intensity.
"I felt a whole lot better on the mound," he said. "I felt stronger. I felt more confident. I felt like I was better prepared. I didn't feel lethargic like I did in my first three starts."
Paul Maholm (3-1) had his streak of 25 1/3 scoreless innings to begin the season end when the Pirates scored three times in the sixth.
"I was never worried about the streak because I knew I was going to give up some runs at some point," Maholm said. "I just want our team to win games, and that's where my disappointment comes from, not the streak."
Starling Marte drew a leadoff walk, moved up on Jose Tabata's bunt and scored on Andrew McCutcheon's double to right field.
Though it was Andrew McCutchen bobblehead night, it was Sanchez who delivered the big blow when he followed by hitting his first home run of the season to dead center field. That put the Pirates up 3-1.
"We had put some good at-bats against him leading up to that inning," Sanchez said. "We felt if we stuck with that approach and keep putting up good at-bats that we would eventually score some runs. And it paid off."
McCutchen and Sanchez each had two hits and Jason Grilli pitched a perfect ninth for his sixth save.
The Braves (13-4) lost back-to-back games for the first time all season. They also lost a game in which they scored for the first time this year.
The Braves scored their run in the second when McDonald issued three of his four walks, including one with the bases loaded to Andrelton Simmons with one out. McDonald escaped further trouble by striking out Maholm and B.J. Upton.
Maholm struck out the side in the first as he set down B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton in order.
"I was determined I was going to get out of it when they loaded the bases," McDonald said. "I wasn't going to let the game get away from me this time. I was going to stop it right there, and I did. It was a great feeling.
Chris Johnson had two of Atlanta's four hits.
"We just got one (run) there and that hurt," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We get McDonald on the ropes, but instead of putting a big crooked number up there or maybe even getting him out of the game, we let him wiggle out of it. We hit some balls hard off him, but that was really our only (scoring) chance."
NOTES: Braves second baseman Dan Uggla left the game in the middle of the fourth with a strained left calf. He apparently was injured while grounding out to shortstop in the top of the inning. ... Atlanta infielder Blake DeWitt was placed on the 15-day disabled list before the game with a lower back strain. Right-handed reliever David Carpenter was recalled from Class AAA Gwinnett, though he had losses in two of his last three appearances and a blown save in the third. After using the bullpen for a combined nine innings in the previous two games at Pittsburgh and with a three-game series at Colorado starting on Monday, the Braves wanted a reliever who could pitch multiple innings. ... Pirates catcher Russell Martin made his ninth career start at third on Saturday night and first since 2008 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Michael McKenry caught and third baseman Pedro Alvarez was on the bench as Hurdle wanted to load the lineup with right-handed hitters against Maholm. ... Kris Medlen (1-1, 1.42) will start for the Braves against left-hander Jonathan Sanchez (0-2, 12.96) on Sunday in the finale of the four-game series.