Originally written April 20, 2013 on Fox Sports South:
Taking three cuts after the Braves' 3-1 loss to the Pirates on Saturday night. 1. Maholm's streak is no more He would go 25 13 innings -- 50 13 if you include spring training -- without allowing a run. But the best run of Paul Maholm's career would come to a screeching halt, somewhat ironically in the place where his career started. In the sixth inning he issued a lead-off walk to Starling Marte -- who came in mired in an 0-for-7 slump -- and he would be doubled home by Andrew McCutchen, then Gaby Sanchez followed with a two-run home run. Maholm would suffer his first loss of the season, but it doesn't downplay what's been one of the more surprising stories of the season for Atlanta. He wasn't seen as the Braves' ace to open the season, but Maholm looked every bit the part to open 2013. He was the sixth pitcher since 1920 to win his first three starts without allowing run, and the third since 1966, joining Luis Taint, Woody Williams and Zack Greinke. That run has included a strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine inning for a pitcher who has averaged 5.8 over his career, and it's come at a time when his fastball has been slightly declining in velocity, going from 87.3 mph in '11 to 87.1 last season and 86.7 so far in '13. Maholm's off-set it by leaning more on his curveball, which includes occasionally tossing in a slow curve that averages in the 50s. The eighth pick in the '03 draft by the Pirates, he didn't become the star the Pittsburgh was hoping he would be, going 53-73 with a 4.36 ERA for seven seasons. It wasn't until he signed with the Cubs in '12 and traded to the Braves in July that Maholm found his groove, ranking among the top six in the National League in ERA since last year's All-Star break. Making his 100th career start at PNC Park, Maholm allowed four hits and three runs in six innings, while striking out five and walking three on 89 pitches. 2. The bats have largely gone flat of late Outside of Chris Johnson, who supplied half of the Braves' hits with a double and a single, they largely struggled at the plate, with the Uptons were the only other players to get a hit. It continued a tough stretch for Atlanta, which, outside of the 6-4 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday, has racked up 31 strikeouts to go one run in two games against the Pirates and one vs. the Royals, all losses. "I though we hit the ball well at times," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Justin (Upton) hit a ball to right field they made a nice play on and B.J. (Upton) drove the ball to the warning track that if (Starling Marte) doesn't catch is a home run. We're just not getting those good at-bats consistently." Saturday, the Braves only run came on a bases-loaded walk by Andrelton Simmons in the second inning and the rest of the way, they failed to push a runner past second base. Those offensive problems led to consecutive losses for the first time this season and the only time Atlanta has dropped a game in which it has scored. Strikeouts are nothing new to this team coming off a season in which they set a franchise record with 1,289 Ks but the talk was that Atlanta could live with those whiffs considering the amount of home runs this lineup was expected to produce. Any talk of small ball was to be secondary. While that has largely held true as the Braves lead the majors with 29 HRs, this recent string of games is indicative of how that all-or-nothing approach can bite this team. They're not likely to go through many stretches like this, but right now they're in need of a spark. Could Freddie Freeman, who was hitting .412 with a home run and seven RBI in five games before injuring his oblique and is set to return as early as Monday, provide it? 3. Is Johnson on his way to becoming the every day third baseman? Johnson and Juan Francisco began the year in a third base platoon, not because neither was a viable option on their own, but because they both sizzled amid the competition in spring training. Johnson, though, is making the case to have the position outright, hitting a National League-leading .418 with a 1.033 OPS. Meanwhile, Francisco was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and now has a .298 average and he continues to have trouble against left-handers, with just one hit in eight at-bats. "We'll see," Gonzalez said. "Chris sure has made a case for himself to play every day. So, we'll see." It was Francisco that got the start at third in the Braves' loss, while Johnson played first base in place of the rehabbing Freeman. But with Freeman returning, the days of both of them in the starting lineup will be few and far between. Francisco still poses the bigger power threat, and it's too early to conceded the position for the season, but with the way Johnson is hitting right now, it's going to be difficult for Gonzalez to keep him out of the lineup. For now, it would seem surprising for the platoon to continue when Freeman returns, and that's bad news for Francisco.
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