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Sour ending for Pearce in Pirates home loss

Desperate to break the Pirates out of another batting funk, manager Clint Hurdle put Steve Pearce in the No. 2 spot Wednesday against the Atlanta Braves.

"I did a double-take," Pearce said. "I was like, 'Wow. I had never hit there before.' "

Pearce singled in each of his first two at-bats. In his fourth at-bat, he smacked a game-tying home run during the seventh inning. In Pearce's fifth at-bat, the Pirates had the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied.

"In a storybook world ..." Hurdle said, wistfully.

Alas, this story did not have a happy ending for the Pirates. Pearce grounded into a double play, and the Braves went on to win, 4-2, in 11 innings.

The hero instead was Braves pinch hitter Brooks Conrad, who drove a game-winning, two-run homer onto the concourse beyond center field. Jeff Karstens (3-3) took the loss.

Hurdle put Jose Tabata and Pearce at the top of the lineup and dropped Andrew McCutchen to the third spot. Pearce does not fit the traditional template of a No. 2 hitter — he doesn't own a high batting average or have much experience advancing baserunners.

"I know this: Steve has consistently given us good at-bats," Hurdle said before the game. "He can hit the ball the other way. He's got some walks. His on-base percentage has been (good). We'll see where it goes. We've got nothing to lose."

The moves paid off in the third inning, when Tabata singled, stole second base and scored on Pearce's single to center. That broke a spell of 21 scoreless innings, during which the Pirates collected 10 hits, nine of them singles.

"I did a good job in the beginning (of the season) hitting leadoff," said Tabata, who was switched back into the leadoff spot after foundering for six weeks in the No. 2 hole. "I'm more relaxed. You see more fastballs there, too."

With Atlanta leading, 2-1, in the seventh, Tabata lined a two-out single to center off Eric O'Flaherty for his second hit of the game. Like he did in the third inning, Tabata tried to steal second again, but O'Flaherty was ready and threw to first base as Tabata took off. Tabata was an easy out.

Pearce went deep on the next pitch. Instead of taking a 3-2 lead, the Pirates settled for a tie.

"When I saw Jose tagged out, I was thinking, 'Aw, why couldn't he have waited one more pitch?' " Pearce said. "But if that happens, who knows if I get that fastball to hit out in that situation• So, it really doesn't matter."

It was Pearce's first home run in the majors since Sept. 15, 2009, ending a drought of 112 at-bats.

In the ninth, Tabata was intentionally walked to load the bases with one out. Pearce faced lefty reliever Jonny Venters for only the second time in his career.

"I really wanted that at-bat," Pearce said. "I was so ready. I was looking for something up in the zone to drive."

Pearce took a called strike, then a ball. Venters' next pitch was a textbook two-seam fastball.

"If you watch it in slo-mo, you'd say, 'What a great changeup,' " Pearce said. "But it was a 90-mph sinker. He made a really great pitch."

The ball came in knee-high over the middle of the plate, then dropped like it fell through a trapdoor. Pearce made contact -- but just barely.

Third baseman Chipper Jones scooped up the slow roller and threw to home plate to force out pinch-runner Pedro Ciriaco. Catcher Brian McCann fired to first base to complete the inning-ending double play.

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