In his first season in Pittsburgh, A.J. Burnett gave the Pirates something they'd rarely had over the past two decades - a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
Though it's hardly evident in his record, he's been even better in 2013.
Burnett looks for just his second win in the past three months Sunday as the Pirates try to maintain their grip on baseball's best record in this finale against the visiting Colorado Rockies .
The right-hander gave Pittsburgh its first 16-game winner since 1991 last season while posting the ninth-best ERA (3.51), fifth-best opponent batting average (.246) and fourth-best strikeout rate (8.01 per nine innings) during the Pirates' 20-year stretch of losing seasons.
Burnett (4-7, 2.86 ERA) has better numbers across the board this season, again ranking among the NL's top 10 in ERA and opponent batting average (.221) while posting the league's second-best strikeout rate (9.93). He just hasn't gotten much help.
Tuesday was the seventh time in Burnett's past 12 starts where the Pirates (66-44) scored exactly one run for him, though manager Clint Hurdle wasn't complaining about his pitcher's contributions in a 2-1, 11-inning win over St. Louis. Burnett seemed to be getting close to an ejection after arguing a call in the sixth, but escaped a jam and made it through seven, allowing three hits and a run while striking out nine.
"A.J. can get fired up. He's not one to hide his emotions by any means," Hurdle told the team's official website. "That's one of the things you love about him. He's out there and lets people know how he feels, including his teammates."
Pittsburgh has given Burnett just seven runs over his last six home starts, a total it nearly provided Francisco Liriano in seven innings Saturday. Jose Tabata homered, tripled and doubled in a 5-2 victory over the Rockies that was Liriano's seventh win in eight outings and extended the Pirates' NL Central lead over St. Louis back to 1 1/2 games.
Tabata had hit .116 in 43 at-bats over his previous 18 games with no extra-base hits.
For whatever reason, visits from Colorado bring out the best in him. Tabata has hit safely in all 11 career home games against the Rockies, homering three times in 45 at-bats and posting a .711 slugging percentage.
Tabata has five homers at PNC in 561 at-bats against all other opponents."We've seen Jose swing the bat like this before and be productive over the last few years," Hurdle said. "Hopefully, he will get hot."
Burnett has faced Colorado (52-60) just once since 2004, though he's had the number of one Rockie from their time together in the AL. Michael Cuddyer is 3 for 24 with eight strikeouts against Burnett.
If Juan Nicasio (6-5, 4.92) pitches on Sunday anything like he did Tuesday in Atlanta, the Pirates should have little trouble supporting Burnett. The right-hander gave up a career-high eight runs over four innings in an 11-3 loss after posting a 0.47 ERA in three starts following a two-week stint in the minors."I'm feeling good, but it was a bad day," Nicasio said. "It was a bad game. I'm working hard for next time. I need to win. I need to win. I love the game. It's hard."
Struggling on the road is nothing new for Nicasio. Opponents have an .865 OPS when he pitches outside of Denver, the fourth-worst mark for an NL starter.
Nicasio fared well, however, in his lone previous appearance at PNC Park. He held the Pirates to a run over 6 2-3 innings April 25, 2012, as the Rockies went on to win 2-1.
Colorado All-Star Carlos Gonzalez could return after being held out of the lineup the past four days with a sprained right middle finger.
|August 01, 2013||Carlos Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Sprained right middle finger|
|July 31, 2013||Carlos Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Sprained right middle finger|
|July 23, 2013||Drew Pomeranz||15-Day DL||Left bicep tendinitis|
|July 15, 2013||Rafael Betancourt||15-Day DL||Appendicitis|
|July 08, 2013||Carlos Gonzalez||Day-to-Day||Sprained finger|
|July 08, 2013||Roy Oswalt||15-Day DL||Strained left hamstring|
|July 28, 2013||Travis Snider||15-Day DL||Left big toe discomfort|
|July 28, 2013||Michael McKenry||15-Day DL||Left knee surgery - out for season|
|July 23, 2013||Jason Grilli||15-Day DL||Strained right forearm|
|July 07, 2013||Neil Walker||15-Day DL||Strained right oblique|
|July 07, 2013||Neil Walker||15-Day DL||Strained right oblique|
|June 09, 2013||A.J. Burnett||15-Day DL||Strained right calf|
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- At 36 and the owner of two World Series rings, A.J. Burnett says he no longer cares about personal statistics.
"It's all about the team," the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander said. "We've got something special really special going on here."
Burnett, however, admitted it was nice to get a win Sunday. He hasn't had too many of them this season.
Burnett scattered eight hits and Russell Martin provided some rare run support for the 15-year veteran with a three-run homer that led the Pirates over the Colorado Rockies 5-1.
Burnett (5-7) struck out nine and walked one in his first complete game of the season and 23rd of his career. He threw 110 pitches, including 83 strikes.
"I just felt good for all nine innings," Burnett said. "I knew my pitch count was low so I was confident I could get through the ninth. I take pride in finishing what I started. Those guys down there (in the bullpen) need a break."
The Pirates, who have the best record in the major league at 67-44 following 20 consecutive losing seasons, maintained their 1 1/2-game lead in the NL Central over St. Louis.
Burnett has been on World Series winners with the Marlins and Yankees, and he'd ove to play on a third, especially in a city that has embraced him.
"You couldn't help but hear the fans cheering when I walked out there for the ninth inning," Burnett said. "They've been awesome to me for the two years I've been here and they just give you that extra boost of energy."
Martin's home run came in the fifth inning and put the Pirates ahead 5-0. Burnett hasn't gotten much backing this season, and owns a losing record despite a 2.73 ERA.
Martin had missed two of the previous three games with soreness in his left knee. He drove a pitch from Manuel Corpas down the left-field line for his 10th home run of the season.
After the game, Martin wanted to talk about Burnett instead of himself.
"He was outstanding," Martin said. "He's been pitching so well and hasn't had anything to show for it personally a lot of times. I'm really happy he got the win and the complete game."
The Pirates took a 2-0 lead on an RBI single by Andrew McCutchen in the first inning and Garrett Jones ' sacrifice fly in the third.
In the fifth, McCutchen walked with one out and Pedro Alvarez singled to chase starter Juan Nicasio . Corpas relieved and gave up Martin's homer.
"I thought Corpas gave us our best chance to get a double play there," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He puts the ball on the ground consistently with his sinker but hung a breaking ball over the middle of the plate."
Nicasio (6-6) struggled for a second consecutive start, giving four runs and six hits in 4 1-3 innings with three walks and four strikeouts. He allowed a career-high eight runs in his previous start Tuesday at Atlanta.
Nicasio had gone 2-0 with a 0.47 ERA in his first three starts after being recalled July 12 from Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he had spent two weeks.
"I threw too many fastballs that were balls or they fouled off," Nicasio said. "I had a hard time putting the hitters away."
Jonathan Herrera had three hits for the Rockies, including a run-scoring single in the seventh inning that broke up Burnett's shutout bid. Michael Cuddyer added two this.
"That's a good offensive club," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "They can do some things and A.J. was able to work through the middle of the order pretty efficiently. Again, very aggressive, very focused. Ball's down. He took it to `em."
NOTES: Colorado LF Carlos Gonzalez returned to the lineup after not starting for four straight games because of a sprained right wrist and went 1 for 4. ... Rockies rookie 3B Nolan Arenado got his first day off since the All-Star break. ... Pittsburgh RHP Jason Grilli , who has 30 saves, hopes to begin playing catch this week. He has been on the disabled list since July 23 with a strained right forearm. ... Both teams are off Monday before opening three-game series Tuesday night. The Pirates will host the Miami Marlins with LHP Jeff Locke (9-3, 2.36) starting against RHP Henderson Alvarez (2-1, 2.61). Colorado will play the Mets at New York with RHP Tyler Chatwood (7-4, 3.15) pitching against RHP Jenrry Mejia (1-1, 2.08).