PITTSBURGH – When Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons each homered before the seventh pitch of the night, and the Braves had six runs even before the Pirates batted, a four-game Atlanta winning streak and the end of an eight-game road skid seemed inevitable.
The Braves got it, but it wasn’t as easy as might have been expected early on for Ervin Santana, who gave up three runs on three homers and didn’t make it out of the sixth inning of a 7-3 win at PNC Park to open a 10-game trip and three-game series.
Atlanta was coming off a 6-4 homestand that concluded with a three-game weekend sweep of the Oakland Athletics, after an 0-8 road trip that was the worst for the Braves franchise since 1949.
Santana (13-6) gave up nine hits and two walks with four strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings, but the only runs he allowed came on homers –two by Starling Marte, one by Neil Walker — as the veteran improved to 6-0 in his past seven starts. He got a big assist from reliever Luis Avilan on an inning-ending double play with two Pirates in scoring position in the sixth.
Pirates starter Vance Worley (5-3) allowed only six earned runs in 27 innings this season at PNC Park before giving up five earned in the first inning. The Braves also knocked him around last season when he was with the Twins, and in 2012 when he was with the Phillies.
After giving up five hits and two walks in the first inning, Worley limited the Braves to four hits over the next five innings, and they didn’t score again until Heyward’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the eighth off reliever John Axford. Worley had eight strikeouts in six innings.
The Braves got two homers, a Freddie Freeman walk and consecutive singles from Justin Upton and Chris Johnson before Worley got an out. Johnson’s hit drove in the third run of the first inning. Gerald Laird’s one-out single pushed the lead to 4-0, and two runs scored when Santana hit into a potential double play and that turned a fielder’s choice when Neil Walker’s throw to first sailed wide.
Heyward’s home run on the third pitch of the game was his third leadoff homer this season and sixth of his career, and also his fourth homer in 24 games against the Pirates. Simmons followed three pitches later with another home run, the fifth time in franchise history that the Braves opened a game with consecutive homers and third time in the past 12 seasons.
Martin Prado and Nate McLouth did it in 2011, and in 2003 the Braves started a game against Cincinnati with three consecutive homers from Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield, the second team in major league history to accomplish that feat.
It marked the fifth time the Braves scored five or more runs in an inning, and the six runs were one shy of the season-high seven they scored June 10 at Colorado, also in the first inning.
After the Pirates cut the lead in half with three solo homers, a crowd of 31,669 got excited in the sixth inning when Santana allowed consecutive doubles to Marte and Travis Snider to start the inning and bring the potential tying run to the plate. (Marte didn’t score on Snider’s double, which was misplayed by center fielder Emilio Bonifacio, who got turned at the warning track.)
After Santana struck out Brent Morel, Avilan entered and fell behind 3-0 against pinch-hitter Ike Davis before getting him to line out to third base to start an inning-ending double play that preserved the 6-3 lead.
After allowing only one homer in 40 innings over his six-start unbeaten streak before Monday, Santana gave up a pair of leadoff homers to Marte in the second and fourth innings and a third-inning homer to Walker that bounced into the Allegheny River beyond the right-field seats. It was the 35th ball to reach the water since the ballpark opened, and the first this season.
He got into a few other tight spots, but Santana worked out of them by limiting the Pirates to one hit in six at-bats with runners in scoring position, and that hit was Marte’s double that could just as easily have been ruled an error on Bonifacio.
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