PITTSBURGH -- Now that Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin have shown some long-ball life, is the Pirates' lineup two steps closer to realizing its full potential?
"That's a start," manager Clint Hurdle said after watching both key men slug their first homers of the season in Thursday night's 6-4 loss to Atlanta. "We'll see where it takes us. [Alvarez's 448-foot homer] will take your breath away, and I also like the way Martin swung the bat."
Martin picked up 50 percent of his hits output of the early season with the home run and an infield single -- the only one of the Bucs' seven hits that did not go for extra bases.
The Bucs had entered Thursday night's game riding the kind of streak the 2012 club could not assemble until mid-June: three consecutive games with five-plus runs and 10-plus hits.
That was interesting, given that the Pittsburgh "0-ffense" was meek through the season's first week, averaging fewer than four hits per game.
And downright amazing, considering the lower half of the lineup was still hitting below .100: Alvarez (4-for-45), Martin (4-for-39), Clint Barmes (4-for-36) and the pitcher in the nine-hole.
Barmes is the glove man, and pitchers have their own responsibilities, but the other two obviously can take this lineup from competitive to frightening.
"It can be very, very good," Hurdle said. "We can beat you a number of different ways. We have a combination of power and speed that is unique in today's game. We have the things you need, the weapons you need, to be way more consistent than we were the first week. And I believe we will be."
Given the lack of consistent production from Alvarez and Martin, the Bucs have to be pleased with their 7-8 record. And that gives them something in common with the 13-2 Braves, who are thrilled to own the Majors' best record despite two-thirds of their outfield (B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward) still hitting a combined .142
Morton, Liriano closer to joining rotation
PITTSBURGH -- Should the back end of the rotation be heeding Satchel Paige's timeless words?
"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you," the sage of the mound advised.
Two high-end starters are turning the corner in their Minor League rehabs, and manager Clint Hurdle wants their footsteps to be heard.
"Guys know the clock is ticking," Hurdle said of his present starters. "We've got guys coming."
Left-hander Francisco Liriano, lights-out perfect in his most recent start, is stepping up to Double-A Altoona for a Saturday start of four innings or 65 pitches. Hurdle proclaimed him "three starts and ready."
Charlie Morton is considered "one start behind Liriano," according to Hurdle. Morton, working his way back from Tommy John surgery in June, went three innings in a Thursday-night start for Class A Bradenton. He allowed three hits and two runs, picking up two strikeouts and throwing 33 of 44 pitches for strikes. According to eyewitness accounts, his fastball reached as high as 96 mph.
Also due to appear for Altoona in relief on Saturday is Jose Contreras, a candidate for midseason bullpen help.
Clearly, complacency is not affordable by any starter behind A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez -- whose own status will be better known following his Friday-night start, his first since walking off Chase Field's mound on April 8 with a strained left hamstring. Jeff Locke, Thursday night's starter against the Braves, and Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald, both of whom will be rebounding from shaky starts in their next turns, are apparently on the clock.
A.J.'s one-hitter a gem in more ways than one
PITTSBURGH -- If anyone had any doubts about how extraordinary A.J. Burnett's one-hitter on Wednesday night was, here are a couple of perspectives:
• In holding the Cardinals hitless for 6 2/3 innings -- until a double by Carlos Beltran -- Burnett took a no-hitter into the seventh inning for the fifth time in his career. The only active pitcher who has done it more is Derek Lowe (six). Others with five include Mark Buehrle, Matt Cain, Ted Lilly and Justin Verlander.
• Relievers Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jason Grilli finished the one-hitter while picking up a strikeout each. Add Burnett's eight whiffs, and it was the first time in the Pirates' live-ball (post-1916) history that they allowed no more than one hit and no walks while striking out at least 11. Furthermore, it was the first time in the Cardinals' own long history that it was done to them.
After seeing a string of starters stagger through the first innings of recent games, manager Clint Hurdle immediately picked up on Burnett's fixation.
"He came out, and that first inning was electric. A.J. let them know he was there," said Hurdle, who then put into words the message Burnett's pitches conveyed: "We're going to have a ballgame. Here it is: Here's the spin, here's the sinker and here's the four-seamer. Go do what you can, because I'm throwing all three all night long."
Number to note
39: Home runs by Neil Walker as the Pirates' second baseman; his next will tie him with George Grantham (1925-31) for second all-time, behind leader Bill Mazeroski (137)
Quote to note
"We'd love to get all the plates spinning at the same time." -- manager Clint Hurdle, channeling his inner juggler, on the holdouts of the Bucs' otherwise productive batting attack
• Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) may not be on the forefront of pitchers recovering from injuries, but he also made progress on Thursday with a 30-pitch bullpen session in which he went through his entire repertoire.
"It was as good as I'd hoped it would be," Karstens said. "I'm where I need to be. No sense feeling frustrated about not yet being able to contribute. All I can do is move forward from where I'm at."
• Primary setup reliever Mark Melancon has made six of his nine appearances in the eighth inning, and he has retired all 18 men he faced in that frame.
• Ducky Schofield, utility man extraordinaire, had his 1960 World Series ring stolen in a recent burglary of his home in Springfield, Ill., according to grandson Jayson Werth, per CBSSports' Jon Heyman.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.