Joe Musgrove knew something was off.
It wasn’t just the back-to-back losses he took in late May — it was the way he worked in those games. His typically smooth delivery got funky. The crispness that comes when he’s rolling vanished.
So the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander pored over video. He dissected his bullpen sessions with backup catcher Jacob Stallings. And then Musgrove went out and shut down the Atlanta Braves, pitching into the ninth inning for the first time in his career in a 7-4 victory Wednesday night.
Musgrove (4-6) retired 14 straight during one stretch and struck out six against one walk to give Pittsburgh’s weary bullpen a break as the Pirates ended a three-game slide.
“Any athlete will tell you, you hit that point in the game where you get in the zone, there’s no real stopping you,” Musgrove said. “You’re not thinking about anything. You’re seeing the glove and throwing to it.”
Musgrove was knocked around by the Dodgers and Brewers in his previous two starts, giving up 11 runs in 11 innings against two of the better offenses in the majors. There were no such issues against the Braves. Working quickly following a rain delay of more than two hours, he threw 65 of 99 pitches for strikes before being lifted for closer Felipe Vázquez after giving up back-to-back home runs to Ronald Acuña Jr. and Dansby Swanson in the ninth.
Vázquez allowed an RBI double to Nick Markakis but avoided major damage as the Pirates won for just the fifth time in 16 games.
“The two homers, it doesn’t feel good to leave on that note, but I’m more happy with how I feel going into my next start,” Musgrove said. “I feel like this is something I can build on and something that can turn my season around.”
Elias Diaz hit his first home run of the season. Colin Moran added his seventh for the Pirates, who jumped on Atlanta starter Kevin Gausman (2-5) to give Musgrove plenty of wiggle room. Diaz sent a two-run shot to the left field bleachers in the second and Moran drilled one into the Atlanta bullpen just beyond the center field wall in the fifth.
Gregory Polanco went 3 for 4. Starling Marte added three hits and Josh Bell returned from his first day off this season to deliver an RBI double for Pittsburgh, which touched up Gausman for seven runs.
“I think it’s just me not making pitches when I need to,” Gausman said. “I feel like I am right where I need it to be, but the results really aren’t saying that I am.”
Atlanta rookie left fielder Austin Riley produced his 26th RBI in his 19th career game, a sharp single in the second, but otherwise the Braves did little against Musgrove until it was too late.
The start was held up for 2 hours, 4 minutes, due to rain, though the grounds crew didn’t even have the tarp on the field when the delay began and the precipitation was only moderate at best. Not that the Pirates were complaining. Better to wait out any showers than have Musgrove start, then see his night end early because of a potential rain delay.
When the skies cleared, the Pirates wasted little time getting to Gausman. A week removed from giving up eight runs in just one inning of a loss to Washington, Gausman again ran into trouble early.
Polanco singled with one out in the second and the deluge began. Diaz, making his 15th start in the last 20 games while catcher Francisco Cervelli deals with concussion-like symptoms, ripped a liner to the seats in left for his first home run since last September.
Musgrove, Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds and Marte followed with singles. Bell sliced a ball down the left field line to score Reynolds. The barrage would have continued if Marte hadn’t tried to score from first on the play, only to be thrown out by 20 feet.
“Just not doing a good job of keeping the big innings from happening and just really had to grind out there today and you give them a five spot in the second, definitely not what you’re trying to do,” Gausman said.
When Gausman slowly made his way to the dugout, the Braves trailed 5-1. He hung around for five innings to help save Atlanta’s bullpen a night after the relievers worked five innings in a 12-5 comeback win.
There would be no rally this time. When Moran’s home run in the fifth sailed over the fence, the Pirates led by six and Musgrove was cruising.
The Pirates are shuffling their injury-ravaged starting rotation ahead of a weekend series in Milwaukee. Rookie Davis will get his first start since 2017 on Friday. Davis, who has appeared in four games as a reliever since being called up from Triple-A Indianapolis last month, went 1-3 with an 8.59 ERA in six starts for the Reds in 2017. Davis replaces Nick Kingham, who posted an 11.05 ERA in six appearances since May 3.
Pirates: RHP Trevor Williams (right side strain) was scheduled to throw a bullpen. If there are no setbacks, he will pitch a simulated game Saturday. … RHP Jameson Taillon (right arm strain) and RHP Keone Kela (right shoulder inflammation) are both heading to Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida, to start rehabilitation. … SS Erik Gonzalez (fractured collarbone) has been cleared to start hitting.
Braves: Mike Foltynewicz (1-4, 6.10 ERA) gets the ball for Thursday’s series finale. The right-hander is 1-3 with a 6.88 ERA in four career starts against Pittsburgh.
Pirates: Chris Archer (2-5, 5.66 ERA) earned his first victory since April 7 when he beat the Brewers last Friday. Archer has won consecutive starts just twice since the beginning of the 2017 season.