PITTSBURGH - Andrew McCutchen slapped the ball to third base and prepared to put together another patent sprint to first.
He barely made it out of the batter's box. Like the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the reigning National League MVP is spinning his wheels at the moment.
McCutchen went 0 for 4 in his return from the disabled list as the Pirates fell to the surging Atlanta Braves 11-3 on Tuesday night for their seventh straight loss.
While he reported no discomfort in his first game since fracturing rib cartilage on Aug. 3, McCutchen didn't exactly look crisp. In addition to his stumble in the sixth he grounded into a double play in the eighth before being taken out with things well out of reach.
"This is definitely something trying to do, get back in the rhythm of things, get back in the swing of things," McCutchen said. "That will come sooner rather than later."
If the Pirates want to steady themselves, McCutchen won't really have a choice.
Pittsburgh could do little against Aaron Harang (10-7), who struck out four without a walk in 8 1-3 innings. Travis Snider, Starling Marte and Russell Martin had two hits apiece for the Pirates, but Pittsburgh couldn't get the hits when they mattered after the Braves raced to a quick 4-0 lead.
"There's tipping points and you look for one good at bat, one big swing with a guy on base that can change the direction of the game and we haven't gotten that the last week or so," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Justin Upton went 2 for 4 with five RBI for the Braves, including a three-run homer off Francisco Liriano (3-10) in the third and a two-run single in the fifth.
"He gets hot and he can carry us," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's done that a few months so it's nice to have that big bat right behind (Freddie) Freeman, who is starting to roll the pole a little bit also."
Jason Heyward went 2 for 5 with three RBI for the Braves while Evan Gattis hit his 19th homer. Atlanta has won five straight.
Pittsburgh is heading in the opposite direction.
The Pirates went 5-9 without their superstar center fielder. He received a standing ovation when he made his first plate appearance but was caught looking at a fastball from Harang that caught the outside corner.
It marked the start of another forgettable night for the Pirates, who matched their longest losing streak since dropping seven in a row from Sept. 7-14, 2012. That skid came in the middle of a late freefall that sent them tumbling out of playoff contention after a promising summer.
Hurdle doesn't believe history is repeating itself, at least not yet.
"We've had situations where it hasn't been one thing you've put your finger on, we haven't played a complete game," Hurdle said. "This is all about the beauty and the challenge of a 162-game season. It's up to us to get it turned back around."
Better pitching would help. Liriano gave up nine runs, seven earned, in four-plus innings. He walked three and struck out four while his ERA rose from 3.78 to 4.18.
"One of those nights anything you throw is gonna get hit," Liriano said. "They've been pretty hot last couple games. ... I've got to put it behind me, got to move forward."
Braves: After failing to retire a single batter against Charlotte in an International League game on Wednesday night, rehabbing right-handed reliever Shae Simmons will make a third appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday. Simmons has been on the disabled list since July 27 with a strained right shoulder.
Pirates: Shortstop Clint Barmes was given a night off in Triple-A Indianapolis as he recovers from a strained left groin that has sidelined him since late June. The 35-year-old Barmes went 0 for 3 in his first game with the Indians on Monday night.
Braves: Alex Wood (9-9, 3.07 ERA) goes for his third straight victory on Wednesday for Atlanta. The 23-year-old has a 1.45 ERA over his last six starts but remains at .500 on the season because he receives the second-lowest run support in the majors.
Pirates: Ace-in-training Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.78 ERA) returns from his second stint on the disabled list on Wednesday. Cole hasn't pitched in the majors since being sidelined by right lat soreness on July 9.