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September 2, 2013

MLB: Walker homers, Pirates retake NL Central lead

MILWAUKEE — Charlie Morton is doing his part to ensure that the Pittsburgh Pirates end their 20-year playoff drought.

Morton won his fourth consecutive decision, a career best, pitching seven strong innings to help the Pirates retake the NL Central lead with a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday.

“I was executing pitches and going out and trying to attack guys,” Morton said. “I was able to throw different pitches in the zone.”

Morton (7-3) gave up seven hits and one earned run. He walked two and struck out six while winning his fourth straight decision. He added a base hit, his first two sacrifice bunts of the season and scored a run for good measure.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Morton turned in a “blue-collar effort” for his club, which improved to 23 games over .500 and is now just one win away from breaking a two-decade long streak of losing seasons.

“Charlie has gotten to a very good place,” Hurdle said. “He was efficient but he had to work today except for the sixth, when he blew them away.”

Morton, who struck out the side in the sixth, said it’s important that he mix in other pitches to complement his sinker, which tends to be his main pitch.

“I get hurt late in games by throwing too many sinkers,” Morton said. “I need to throw more off-speed pitches. Guys are going to be all over my sinkers if I keep throwing one pitch.”

Morton has allowed two runs or fewer in each of his last five starts, going 4-0 with a 1.71 earned run average and is 6-1 with a 2.90 ERA since the All-Star break.

“We lacked the big hits but you’ve got a big pitcher out there,” Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. “(Morton) is really good. He throws a great sinker and pounds the right-handers in with it. It’s always down in the zone. He’s got a good curveball and a good changeup. That’s a really nice pitcher they have.”

Neil Walker hit a three-run homer and Jose Tabata added three hits, including a pair of run-scoring singles, as the Pirates moved one game ahead of St. Louis, which lost earlier in the day at Cincinnati. Pittsburgh won the opener of a nine-game road trip.

Walker broke it open with his homer off reliever Alfredo Figaro in the seventh for a 5-1 lead.

“I knew the guy threw hard and threw a lot of fastballs,” Walker said. “I just wanted to hit something well and fortunately I did.”

Mark Melancon pitched the ninth for his 10th save in 12 chances.

Milwaukee starter Tyler Thornburg (1-1) allowed two runs and six hits in six innings.

“I felt pretty good going out there. I’m definitely happy any time you can give your team an opportunity to win a ball game,” Thornburg said.

The Brewers opened the scoring in the second when Juan Francisco sliced a double that landed just inside the left field line. Francisco scored on a single by Logan Schafer.

The Pirates tied it in the third when Clint Barmes led off with a single and later scored on a single by Tabata.

Milwaukee threatened in the third when Norichika Aoki tried to score on Jonathan Lucroy’s one-out grounder to third. Aoki was tagged out in a rundown by third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who then threw out Lucroy as he attempted to advance to second.

“First and foremost, you want to get the guy trying to score from third,” Walker said. “Pedro made an unbelievable play. That was pretty much a momentum-shifter.”

The Brewers loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth but Thornburg struck out swinging.

Barmes led off with a double in the fifth and Tabata singled home the go-ahead run. Thornburg struck out Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded to prevent further damage.

Singles by Morton and Tabata set up Walker’s 10th home run.

The Brewers added a run in the seventh when a soft throw from the outfield skipped under Alvarez’s glove for an error and rolled into the Pirates’ dugout, allowing Aoki to score from second base.

Pittsburgh improved to 11-6 against Milwaukee this season, marking its highest win total against the Brewers since going 12-6 in 2004.

“Milwaukee was kicking us around but they’ve had some challenges over there this year,” Hurdle said.

Halting a lengthy losing trend against Milwaukee has bolstered the Pirates playoff run this season, Barmes said.

“It’s huge to scrap one out here, because they’ve kind of had our number the last couple of years,” he said.

NOTES: The victory gave the Pirates three consecutive wins in Milwaukee for the first time since 2004. ... Milwaukee’s Jean Segura stole his league-leading 39th base in the fifth. ... Brewers relief pitcher Tom Gorzelanny left the game with tightness in his left shoulder after throwing just two pitches. ... Michael Blazek, acquired by Milwaukee on Sunday from St. Louis as the player to be named in a deal that sent relief pitcher John Axford to the Cardinals, pitched a scoreless inning of relief. ... Thornburg made his fourth start of the season and first since Aug. 14.

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