ATLANTA -- Though they sit just two games back in the National League Wild Card standings, the Pirates have far too often felt the frustration that consumed them again at Turner Field on Wednesday night, when Rob Whalen struggled mightily through the first inning of his career and then held steady as the Braves erupted against Jeff Locke en route to an 8-4 victory.
After enduring a four-run first inning that included Matt Joyce's three-run homer, Whalen blanked the Pirates over his final four innings and earned a win in his big league debut. The Braves took the lead as they chased Locke during a two-run fifth with Nick Markakis' game-tying sacrifice fly and a go-ahead single recorded by Ender Inciarte, who ran his hit hitting streak to 14 games with a three-hit performance.
"Obviously, the game didn't quite start the way we hoped it would, but the end result was exactly what we were looking for," Braves catcher Anthony Recker said. "[Whalen] did a great job getting through that first inning and then bearing down and just making pitches."
Locke allowed five earned runs over 4 1/3 innings, and in the process, he provided a reminder of why he'd been moved to the bullpen before being given a chance to make this spot start within Pittsburgh's jumbled rotation. Erick Aybar also recorded three hits and Matt Kemp notched his first RBI for Atlanta as the Braves handed the Pirates their fifth loss in seven games.
"We've got to look at the big picture," Joyce said. "We're still three games out [of the second wild card]. I think we've just got to keep fighting, obviously. We still have a lot of baseball to be played, but it's possible. If we get on a roll here and we start playing like we know we can, we can be in that spot, in that position we want to be in."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Impressive recovery: The Braves' bullpen was stirring as Whalen issued two walks, hit a batter, uncorked a wild pitch and surrendered three hits during the 36-pitch, four-run first inning. But the right-hander surrendered just one more hit (Jung Ho Kang's two-out double in the second) and pitched around the consecutive walks issued to begin the third inning. He retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced during a 98-pitch, five-inning effort.
"Putting us in a hole in the first inning like I did was tough, but I was just trying to battle through it the best I could," Whalen said. "What an amazing job by the offense to come through and pick me up. They kept chipping away. One run every inning makes it a little easier. My goal was to keep us in it the best I could, no matter how bad it was getting out there." More >
Another rough outing: Locke's season-long struggles continued on Wednesday, as he surrendered five earned runs and nine hits after a hitless first inning. The left-hander has delivered some strong starts this year and has shown promise in two relief outings -- allowing no runs and six hits across 4 1/3 innings. But inconsistency continues to plague him and could send him to a permanent bullpen role once Tyler Glasnow returns from the disabled list.
"It would be nice to be on a little bit better scheduling, but that stuff is out of your control," Locke said. "I'm just trying to put something good together, however that may be. Tonight, I didn't know if I could go 50 pitches or 100 pitches. I really didn't know the case because I haven't started in a long time … I've just got to get back on track here some way, somehow."
Team effort: Playing his second game since being acquired from the Padres, Kemp fueled the two-run fifth inning with a double (his first hit with the Braves) and then added a sacrifice fly during a two-run sixth against Juan Nicasio. Each of Atlanta's starting position players recorded at least one hit. Inciarte, who has batted .370 during his 14-game hitting streak, singled and scored on Recker's RBI double in the fourth inning.
"We gave up a bunch of runs, but then scored a run here and a run there and then a couple there," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "(Jace Peterson) did a good job to lead off the sixth with a single and then score a run. We just kept working it and adding on."
Joyce's birthday blast: On a night when the Pirates' offense struggled mightily, Joyce celebrated his 32nd birthday with his three-run homer in the first inning. The homer marked his 11th in 153 at-bats this year and his third over his past nine games. During that stretch, the outfielder is batting .400 (6-for-15) with 10 RBIs and seven runs scored. A primary bench player, Joyce has made the most of his recent starts, hitting safely in eight of his past 10 and batting .303 (10-for-33) with three homers and 11 RBIs. More >
"He had some really good at-bats, and I think he just missed a couple [pitches]. He'll settle in. It's got to be a hectic couple of days getting here. Then you show up one day and then have to hit, work out and take some [fly] balls. He'll be good." -- Snitker, on Kemp
"Sometimes you've got to tip your cap for a guy really just grinding it out. Obviously, we scored a bunch of runs there in the first and were pretty confident going throughout the game, but [Whalen] really battled and seemed like he got better as the game went on. He started throwing a sinker that was moving pretty well, was mixing up his pitches well, and we couldn't piece anything together." -- Joyce
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: In his first game since being being hit in the face by a pitch from Rockies pitcher Jordan Lyles on May 23, Ryan Vogelsong takes the hill for the Pirates in the final game of their six-game road trip. The 39-year-old is 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three games (two starts) at Turner Field during his career. First pitch is set for 7:10 p.m. ET.
Braves: Atlanta will send Tyrell Jenkins to the mound for Thursday's series finale against Pittsburgh. Jenkins bounced back from a rough start at Coors Field and provided six strong innings against the Phillies on Sunday to record his first big league win.