The way Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett is pitching, he could wind up winning the NL's comeback player award.
All Burnett's concerned with is making sure his team keeps piling up victories.
Burnett tries to win his eighth straight start Thursday afternoon and help the visiting Pirates split their four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies , who are not expected to start Chase Utley a day after his impressive return.
Since Burnett was blasted by St. Louis on May 2, Pittsburgh (39-35) has won his last nine starts with the right-hander earning the decision in the last seven behind a 1.87 ERA. This matches the longest consecutive start winning streak of his career, set with Florida in 2005, and is the best by a Pirate since Dock Ellis won eight straight in 1974."It's nice because it means the team is winning," Burnett (8-2, 3.24 ERA) said after allowing two hits and three walks over six scoreless innings in Friday's 4-1 win over Detroit.
Another victory will be his ninth - a number he didn't reach last season with the New York Yankees until Aug. 15 - and he is on pace to threaten the career-high 18 victories he had for Toronto in 2008.
Burnett hasn't faced the Phillies (36-41) since June 16, 2010, when he yielded six runs in 3 1-3 innings of a 6-3 loss for the Yankees. This will be his first start at Citizens Bank Park since getting knocked around for six runs in two innings of an 8-6 loss in Game 5 of the 2009 World Series.
Pittsburgh beat the Phillies 11-7 on Wednesday, winning for the third time in its last 19 games in Philadelphia. Michael McKenry had a three-run homer, Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run blast and Casey McGehee had a solo shot as the Pirates took advantage of Charlie Manuel 's decision to use strictly relief pitchers because of Sunday's doubleheader.
The pitching might not get any better in the finale with starter Kyle Kendrick (2-7, 5.24), who has an 8.10 ERA while going 0-3 in his last four starts.
Kendrick allowed three runs, six hits and three walks while lasting just four innings in Saturday's 7-6 win over Tampa Bay. The righty made two relief appearances against the Pirates in April, and is 4-1 with a 3.25 ERA in five career starts in the series.
McCutchen, who's 3 for 4 against Kendrick since 2011, is batting .444 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in his last 11 games.
McKenry, filling in for injured catcher Rod Barajas , is 7 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs - half his season total - in this series."He's really showed up well," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We needed him."
Utley returned Wednesday after missing the first 76 games because of a chronic problem in both knees, and he didn't miss a beat. He homered in his first at-bat and finished with three hits, but the loss dropped Philadelphia nine games back of division-leading Washington."It was a good first step, but obviously winning would've been ideal," said Utley, who won't start Thursday according to Manuel.
Until Utley and Howard, who is scheduled to start a rehab stint Thursday, return to full strength, the offense continues to lean on Carlos Ruiz . Ruiz, who leads the majors with a .364 average, has homered in each of his last two games and is 8 for 13 in the series.
Ruiz is 3 for 3 with a homer in the regular season against Burnett.
|June 25, 2012||Rod Barajas||Day-to-Day||Left game - bruised left knee|
|May 30, 2012||Charlie Morton||60-Day DL||Right elbow inflammation|
|May 10, 2012||Daniel McCutchen||15-Day DL||Left oblique strain|
|May 10, 2012||Daniel McCutchen||15-Day DL||Left oblique strain|
|May 09, 2012||Erik Bedard||Day-to-Day||Left game - back spasms|
|May 06, 2012||Andrew McCutchen||Day-to-Day||Flu|
|June 25, 2012||Brian Schneider||15-Day DL||Sprained right ankle - out 3-5 weeks|
|June 07, 2012||Freddy Galvis||15-Day DL||Lower back strain|
|June 05, 2012||Placido Polanco||Day-to-Day||Left game - left index finger laceration|
|June 02, 2012||Jose Contreras||60-Day DL||Torn UCL, right elbow - out for season|
|May 28, 2012||Roy Halladay||15-Day DL||Right latissimus dorsi strain|
|May 16, 2012||Placido Polanco||Day-to-Day||Left knee contusion|
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A new catcher didn't affect A.J. Burnett's groove.
Burnett threw 6 2-3 sharp innings to win his eighth straight start, Casey McGehee hit a three-run homer and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Philadelphia Phillies 5-4 Thursday.
Pedro Alvarez also went deep for Pittsburgh, which split the four-game set in Philadelphia by winning the last two. The surprising Pirates, seeking their first winning season since 1992, are 40-35 and second in the NL central.
Burnett (9-2) allowed three runs and six hits, striking out seven. The winning streak is his longest, and it's the first time a Pirates pitcher has won eight in a row since Dock Ellis in 1974.
Michael McKenry caught Burnett for the first time because starter Rod Barajas is injured.
"I was really impressed with McKenry," Burnett said. "He was outstanding. I can't say enough about him. It was a pleasure to work with him. He picked up where Rod left off."
Joel Hanrahan tossed a scoreless ninth for his 20th save in 22 tries. He retired Hunter Pence on a shallow fly with the tying run on third to end it.
Eric Kratz and Pence hit homers for the Phillies.
The Pirates jumped on Kyle Kendrick (2-8) for five runs before he recorded a second out in the first.
"Gave us a chance to win, pitched deep into the game, which they needed me to," Kendrick said. "We came up short."
Drew Sutton led off with an infield single and Neil Walker walked. One out later, Garrett Jones hit an RBI single. McGehee followed with a three-run shot to left. Alvarez then lined one out to right to make it 5-0.
McGehee has five homers and 15 RBIs in June after driving in just six runs with no homers in the first two months.
"I think at one point I was trying to do too much," McGehee said. "I was with a new team trying to make a good impression. Then I went back to just trying to hit the ball up the middle of the field."
Kratz connected off Burnett in the second to cut it to 5-2.
Burnett retired nine straight before consecutive singles by Shane Victorino and Pence put runners on first and third with one out in the sixth. Placido Polanco 's fielder's choice grounder scored Victorino to cut it to 5-3.
Pence led off the bottom of the eighth with a shot off Jason Grilli for his first homer since June 2 and 14th of the year. Pence snapped a 98 at-bat homerless drought.
Grilli pitched out of a jam with two runners on to preserve the lead. He struck out pinch-hitter Jim Thome and retired pinch-hitter Carlos Ruiz on a foul pop. First baseman McGehee made a nice running catch and held onto the ball after stumbling into the first row down the right-field line.
"We got some tough outs from Grilli and Joel," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Kendrick settled down nicely after the awful start. He gave up five runs and six hits in seven innings.
This was Burnett's first appearance in Philadelphia since losing to Cliff Lee and the Phillies in Game 5 of the 2009 World Series. Burnett beat Pedro Martinez in Game 2 that year and the New York Yankees prevented the Phillies from repeating as world champions by taking the Series in six games.
The Phillies finished 5-5 on their longest homestand of the season. The five-time defending NL East champions fell to last place and are 36-42, including 17-24 at home.
NOTES: Phillies designated RHP Chad Qualls for assignment and called up RHP Brian Sanches and LHP Jeremy Horst . ... 1B Ryan Howard is set to start a rehab stint at Class A Lakewood on Thursday night. The 2006 NL MVP hasn't played for the Phillies this season after tearing his left Achilles' tendon last October. ... Burnett is 6-0 on the road. ... The Pirates went back-to-back for the third time this season. ... The Phillies had their 261st straight sellout, including postseason games. ... Lee (0-4, 3.72) tries again for his first win when the Phillies open a three-game series in Miami on Friday night. ... Kevin Correia (3-6, 4.03) starts for the Pirates in St. Louis on Friday.
Rob Maaddi can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/RobMaaddi