Pirates climb back atop NL Central with win

Rick Braun, The Sports Exchange
The SportsXchange

MILWAUKEE -- Playing in their first meaningful September in 21 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates are pleased with how their starting rotation is shaping up.
Charlie Morton posted his sixth straight strong start, and Jose Tabata and Neil Walker supplied all the offense as the Pirates reclaimed sole possession of first place in the National League Central with a 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday at Miller Park.
Coupled with the St. Louis Cardinals' 7-2 loss at Cincinnati, the Pirates (80-57) took a one-game lead in the Central.
Morton (7-3) allowed seven hits and two runs -- only one earned.
In his last six starts, Morton has gone at least six innings and not allowed more than two earned runs. In his last three starts he's gone at least 6 2/3 innings and allowed no more than one earned run.
With Francisco Liriano (15-6, 2.57 ERA) and A.J. Burnett (7-9, 3.09 ERA) also throwing well, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is looking forward to what his team can do as the regular season winds down.
"Charlie's gotten to a very good place, Burnett's in a good place and Liriano's in the best place right now," Hurdle said. "So you've got three guys you're very comfortable going to.
"And I look forward to giving the ball to (Gerrit) Cole tomorrow after his last outing to see what kind of momentum he can build. But our starting pitching has been able to get us more innings and deeper into games since the all-star break."
Morton spent the first 2 1/2 months on rehab assignments after having elbow surgery in June of 2012. He's now found a groove.
"I'm executing pitches," Morton said. "I'm trying to work on things between starts that are productive and efficient and going out and trying to attack guys."
Morton only had one 1-2-3 inning Monday in what Hurdle called a "blue-collar" effort as he lowered his ERA to 3.00 in 15 starts.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was impressed.
"We lacked the big hit," Roenicke said. "You have a good pitcher out there, though. He's really good. He throws a great sinker and pounds right-handers in with it. It's always down in the zone. He has a nice curveball and a nice change-up. That's a really nice pitcher they have."
The Pirates won their third straight game at Miller Park, a stadium that haunted them once for 22 consecutive losses between 2007 and 2010. Before winning the final two games of a series back in May, the Pirates had gone 8-47 in their previous 55 games at Miller Park.
Brewers starter Tyler Thornburg (1-1) allowed just two runs and six hits in six innings, but was saddled with the loss. Thornburg has made four starts with a 1.13 ERA (24 innings, three earned runs) as he tries to put himself into the Brewers' 2014 plans.
"I wouldn't say I'm more comfortable, but it's just what I'm used to," said Thornburg, who has also made 10 relief appearances. "For the past two or three years, even going back into college, I've been a starter. It's just what you are used to. I'm sure if one day I'm in the bullpen for two or three years, I'm sure I'll get comfortable yet."
Tabata drove in runs with RBI singles in the third and fifth innings, and Neil Walker's three-run homer off reliever Alfredo Figaro turned a tight, 2-1 game, into a more comfortable afternoon for the Pirates.
"I knew the guy threw hard and threw a lot of fastballs," said Walker, whose 10th homer of the year was a 423-foot, no-doubt blast to right-center. "I just wanted to hit something well, and fortunately I did."
Former Pirate Tom Gorzelanny relieved Thornburg to start the seventh and surrendered the single to Morton. Gorzelanny, a lefty, departed with tightness in his pitching shoulder and was replaced by Alfredo Figaro. Tabata singled sharply to center, and Walker followed with his home run.
The Brewers tallied an unearned run in the seventh when Norichika Aoki reached on a two-out bunt single and Jean Segura followed with a single to left. Both runners moved up two bases when Tabata's soft throw to third was missed by Pedro Alvarez and rolled into the Pittsburgh dugout. Alvarez was charged with the error.
Morton averted further damage by striking out Jonathan Lucroy.
Tony Watson pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, and Mark Melancon pitched around a two-out single in the ninth for his 10th save.
NOTES: Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez was given the day off Monday with what Roenicke said was an assortment of maladies. Gomez recently missed six games with a knee strain but was struggling even before that. He's batting just .236 (50-for-212) since June 12, dropping his batting average from .326 to .286. ... Monday's game was the opener of a pivotal nine-game road trip over the next 10 days for the Pirates. The Pirates play three games at St. Louis and then finish interleague play for the season with three games in Texas against the Rangers. The trip includes an off-day in St. Louis Thursday.

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