PITTSBURGH -- As his club rolled through this season's first two weeks in successful fashion, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez repeatedly said his pitching staff was hiding the struggles of his more hyped offense, which was manufacturing just enough power out of a few spots in the lineup.
When that power has been neutralized over the course of the past few days, the potent Braves offense has appeared lifeless. One night after being shut out for the second time in three games, the Braves appeared poised to release their frustrations against James McDonald. But their inability to take full advantage of a bases-loaded threat in the second inning proved destructive when the Pirates tallied three sixth-inning runs against a previously unscathed Paul Maholm and claimed a 3-1 victory on Saturday night at PNC Park.
"You're going to give up some runs," Maholm said. "Unfortunately, we didn't score enough to cover it. It was just two bad pitch selections for me on Gaby [Sanchez] and [Andrew] McCutchen. It's part of it. We move on and come back."
As he made his 100th career appearance at the stadium he once called home, Maholm was bidding to become the first Major League pitcher in modern history (since 1900) to not allow a run through his first four starts of a season. But the sixth-inning woes combined with a lack of offensive support made this a frustrating homecoming for the left-hander, who pitched for the Pirates from 2005-11.
McCutchen's game-tying double and Sanchez's decisive two-run home run highlighted Pittsburgh's three-run sixth inning, dooming the Braves as they suffered a second consecutive loss for the first time this season.
The Braves scored at least six runs in eight of their first 15 games. But they have totaled six hits and scored just one run in two games that have followed against the Pirates.
"We're not hitting on all cylinders," Gonzalez said. "But our good starting pitching and our good bullpen has covered it up a little bit. Now you run into a club that is pitching well and you've got to score runs."
All appeared to be going according to plan as Maholm faced the minimum through the first three innings, and he limited the Pirates to two hits through the first five innings. But his fortunes changed when he got ahead of Starling Marte with a 0-2 count, only to issue a walk to begin the bottom of the sixth.
Marte advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt and then raced toward the plate when McCutchen dented the right-field wall with a game-tying double. Four pitches later, Sanchez drilled an 87-mph fastball into the shrubbery beyond the center-field wall.
"With Gabby, I throw a fastball in, and it's one of the only pitches he can do damage with and he did it," Maholm said. "[McCuthen], I got him out earlier on a fastball away. But [the one in the sixth] wasn't executed very well. It's more execution than anything."
The sixth-inning woes snapped Maholm's scoreless streak at 25 2/3 innings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last pitcher to start a season with a longer streak was Luis Tiant, who did not allow a run in the first 27 innings he completed for the Red Sox in 1966.
"I was going to give up a run," Maholm said. "I'm not really worried about the streak. It was going to happen. I wish it would have happened in a game where we scored five, and I gave up three and we win."
Coming off a disastrous start against the Cardinals that lasted just 1 2/3 innings, McDonald appeared to be in trouble when the Braves loaded the bases with none out in the second inning. But the only damage the Braves produced via this threat came courtesy of a bases-loaded walk issued to Andrelton Simmons.
McDonald hit Evan Gattis with a pitch and issued two walks during the second inning. But he minimized the damage against the free-swinging lineup while recording three, three-pitch strikeouts against Juan Francisco, Maholm and B.J. Upton.
"We get McDonald on the ropes there and instead of putting a big, crooked number up and maybe even get him out of there in the second inning, we let him wiggle out of it and we only got one run," Gonzalez said.
Chris Johnson, who leads the National League with a .418 batting average, highlighted his two-hit performance with a double in the second inning against McDonald. The only other Braves players to register hits were B.J. Upton, who had a two-out bloop single in the seventh inning, and Justin Upton, who opened the eighth inning with a single.
The Braves hit five home runs in Tuesday night's win over the Royals and four home runs in Thursday night's series-opening win over the Pirates. But they have also been limited to one run or fewer in two of their past three games.
"We just haven't swung the bats like we're capable, and we've still won 13 games," Gonzalez said. "For me, it's just around the corner."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.