ATLANTA -- Whether the Pirates want to define it as such -- and all indications are that they don't -- the seven-game road trip that began after a two-hour, two-minute rain delay in Atlanta on Monday night could well turn out to be a defining stretch in what has already been a season of exceeded expectations.
Stops in Atlanta and Philadelphia are set to provide a measuring stick for a Pirates team that is intent on proving it is as legitimate a contender as anyone else in the National League Central. And while a week's worth of results may not make-or-break the season for this club, it could certainly set the tone for the final two months.
The Pirates responded to that test by out-pitching the Braves in the first game of a four-game series. Riding another strong performance by James McDonald and some nifty work by Chris Resop and other members of the bullpen, Pittsburgh captured a 3-1 win in front of an announced crowd of 30,098 at Turner Field.
"It's huge," said Resop, whose two sixth-inning outs proved key in the victory. "To come back in today and win the first one of the series and set the tone, that was big. We've got to play good ball on this road trip."
The win kept the Pirates in a first-place tie with St. Louis in the National League Central. The Brewers, who were idle, dropped a half game behind.
"It was really big just coming here versus a really good team that is playing really good baseball," said McDonald. "To get a win right away is really big for the team."
The Pirates have won seven of the last eight games started by McDonald, whose goal of pitching aggressively has led to better results and an increased number of strikeouts recently. On Monday, that total reached a career-high nine in 5 1/3 innings.
McDonald showed a knack for getting a strikeout in big situations, too.
A strikeout started a double play in the first. McDonald got Alex Gonzalez to chase a curveball with runners on the corners and two out in the second. A strikeout of Freddie Freeman stranded another runner in scoring position in the third.
"I've only seen them twice, but the reports we've gotten from our advanced scouts is that they're aggressive and they're really, really pitching well," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We saw that today with McDonald and the crew that came out of the bullpen. They got themselves out of some jams there."
While McDonald's seven-strikeout performance in his last start was largely due to his fastball-curveball mix, the right-hander had success mixing in his slider on Monday. It's a work-in-progress pitch, McDonald said afterward, but it was effective in counts where the Braves were anticipating a fastball.
"This is a good hitting team," said McDonald, who has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his last 12 starts. "All I thought about was pound the zone and keep throwing strikes. The strikeouts happened. It wasn't a thing that I was trying to do."
Of the hurdles McDonald, 7-4, has left to clear, finishing seven innings is near the top of that list. He hasn't pitched that deep in a game since last year, and on Monday, a sixth-inning jam bumped him from the start.
Consecutive one-out singles and catcher's interference by Michael McKenry loaded the bases and prompted manager Clint Hurdle to turn to Resop, who has inherited a Major League-high 48 runners this season.
"That's what Resop has been doing," Hurdle said. "I stuck with it."
Resop has now stranded all but 15 of those 48 runners, as he got Nate McLouth to pop out to McKenry and struck out Gonzalez to end the frame.
"There was a lot going through my head tonight, obviously with Atlanta being my last team," said Resop, who joined the Pirates after the Braves removed him from their roster last August. "I guess I was a little more pumped up than normal going against Atlanta. But again, you're trying to focus on the hitter and getting one hitter out at a time to try and minimize the damage in that situation."
Chipper Jones tagged Daniel McCutchen for an eighth-inning homer, but otherwise the bullpen stood firm. Jose Veras relived McCutchen to close out the eighth. Joel Hanrahan picked up save No. 29.
The Pirates' showing on offense wasn't flashy, but an ability to capitalize on all three of Tim Hudson's walks was enough.
After striking out the side in the first, Hudson walked the first two hitters in the second. The pair both advanced on a fly ball out that center fielder McLouth threw in toward third base. Had his throw gone into second, Pedro Alvarez wouldn't have been able to advance to second.
"I was trying to make a strong throw to the cutoff man," McLouth said. "It ended up not working out that way, but that was my intent."
That put McCutchen in position to score on a groundout by Ronny Cedeno. Alvarez was able to follow him home on a two-out single by McKenry.
Pittsburgh padded its lead with an RBI single from McCutchen in the sixth. That run-scoring opportunity was set up by Neil Walker's ability to reach out and make contact on a pitch out while Garrett Jones was moving to second on a hit and run. Though Walker grounded out for the second out, Jones scooted safely to second.
"At the end of the day, not only do good teams usually hit better, but they make good outs to move people and score people without getting a hit," Hurdle said. "We have to."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.