There are some legitimate questions about the final three slots in the Pittsburgh Pirates ' rotation as September nears, but there's little doubt about the effectiveness of Clint Hurdle 's top two starters.
The offense also appears to be in better shape.
A night after Francisco Liriano gave the Pirates a share of the NL Central's top spot, A.J. Burnett looks to continue his home dominance of the St. Louis Cardinals and lift his club to the outright lead Saturday night.
Pittsburgh (78-56) traded for longtime Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau on Saturday, hoping the four-time All Star can give the Pirates' middling offense a needed jolt heading into the final month of the season. The Twins obtained outfielder Alex Presley and either a player to be named or cash after Pittsburgh made its second major move in five days. Pittsburgh sent a pair of minor leaguers to the New York Mets on Tuesday in exchange for outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck ."We've got more depth, we've got more options than we had four days ago," Hurdle said. "We're a better team. We're a stronger team."
The 32-year-old Morneau hit .259 with 17 homers and 74 RBIs this season for Minnesota and is finishing off a red-hot month in which he smacked nine home runs."I think he's found some ways to spark some things offensively in the second half," Hurdle said.
Hurdle is hopeful Morneau would make it to the clubhouse in time for Saturday night's game.
Charlie Morton 's rotation spot was in jeopardy as recently as Aug. 1, Gerrit Cole is being given extra rest as his innings mount and Jeff Locke has pitched so poorly after his All-Star first half that he's been sent to Double-A while his next start is skipped.
But there's no uncertainty at the top of the Pirates' rotation. Liriano allowed two hits over eight innings Friday in beating the Cardinals (78-56) for the third time in the past 33 days as Pittsburgh pulled even atop the NL Central with a 5-0 win.
Garrett Jones broke out of a 1-for-29 slump by going 3 for 4 with a homer and four RBIs.
"Big game, big series," Jones said. "I made some adjustments and took it into the game and I felt good. I felt aggressive and strong and it was nice to be able to contribute to the win."
Burnett (6-9, 3.18 ERA) takes the ball next, and though he can't match Liriano's 1.21 ERA at PNC Park, he hasn't been far behind. The right-hander has posted a 2.01 ERA in his last nine home starts, a stretch in which he's held the Cardinals to one run and four hits over 14 innings while striking out 17.
Burnett is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA in four home outings against St. Louis since joining the Pirates.
Hurdle certainly seems to like the 1-2 punch at the top of his rotation.
"I just like the way we're going about our business, throwing our best two guys back to back," Hurdle told the team's official website. "... When they are on their game, they can be a force."
This will be Burnett's first home appearance since Aug. 4 after going 1-2 with a 5.55 ERA in his four straight road starts, including a 6-5, 12-inning loss at Busch Stadium on Aug. 15. He pitched four clean innings and was staked to a 4-0 lead before being charged with five runs and failing to survive the fifth.
His mound opponent Saturday will be the same as it was earlier this month. Lance Lynn (13-8, 4.02) gave up four fifth-inning runs that day and wound up lasting 5 1-3, the beginning of a rocky three-start stretch in which the right-hander has posted a 5.89 ERA.
Three of the four runs Lynn allowed over his seven innings in Sunday's 5-2 loss to Atlanta came in the first two innings.
"Hopefully for me, this was a building (block) going down the stretch," Lynn said. "I've got some starts coming up where I've got to be really good.
"And I plan on being really good."
Lynn hasn't been good often on the road, going 2-4 with a 6.06 ERA over his last eight starts outside of St. Louis. He's 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts at PNC Park, however.
Carpenter, who along with McCutchen is tied for the major league lead with 51 multi-hit games, is 5 for 42 (.119) in his career in Pittsburgh.
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|August 22, 2013||Jake Westbrook||15-Day DL||Lower back strain|
|August 15, 2013||Tony Cruz||15-Day DL||Stress fracture, left forearm|
|August 11, 2013||Carlos Beltran||Day-to-Day||Right foot contusion|
|August 07, 2013||Shelby Miller||Day-to-Day||Right elbow contusion|
|July 31, 2013||Shane Robinson||15-Day DL||Strained right shoulder|
|July 31, 2013||Yadier Molina||15-Day DL||Sprained right knee|
|August 27, 2013||Kyle McPherson||60-Day DL||Recovery from right elbow surgery|
|August 19, 2013||Starling Marte||15-Day DL||Right hand contusion|
|August 19, 2013||Starling Marte||Day-to-Day||Right hand contusion|
|August 11, 2013||Starling Marte||Day-to-Day||Left game - left hand|
|July 28, 2013||Travis Snider||15-Day DL||Left big toe discomfort|
|July 28, 2013||Michael McKenry||60-Day DL||Left knee surgery - out for season|
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The latest addition by the suddenly splurging Pittsburgh Pirates hustled into the dugout in the sixth inning on Saturday night eager to step into the batter's box against St. Louis if necessary.
Take a breath, Justin Morneau . The Pirates - and the pennant race - aren't going anywhere.
A.J. Burnett scattered four hits over seven innings, Russell Martin hit a three-run homer and the Pirates beat the Cardinals 7-1 on Saturday night to regain sole possession of the NL Central lead.
Neil Walker added three hits for the Pirates, who improved to 79-56 and moved within three victories of their first winning season since 1992. And there's still a month left.
"It's a great feat," Burnett said. "It's been a long time, but our goals have been higher than that."
Burnett (7-9) gave up one run while striking out six and walking one. He received plenty of help only hours after the Pirates acquired Morneau from the Minnesota Twins , hoping the 2006 AL MVP can give a middling offense a jolt heading into the stretch drive.
Morneau didn't waste time getting to Pittsburgh. He left Texas - where the Twins were playing the Rangers - in the middle of the afternoon, arrived at the airport just before 8 p.m. and was in uniform trading jokes with his new teammates moments after pulling on a black-and-gold jersey.
"You try to get here as quick as you can because you want to be a part of this," Morneau said.
The 32-year-old first baseman will have to wait until Sunday to get his first major league at-bat for someone other than Minnesota. By the time he was inside PNC Park, the Pirates had things well in hand.
Martin keyed a five-run second with his drive off Lance Lynn (13-9), who has a 7.66 ERA in his last four starts.
"It just (ticks) you off and that's where I'm at," Lynn said. "I'm not happy with the way I'm throwing the ball, but I'm going to fix it and I'm looking forward to the next month because it's going to be better."
It might have to be if St. Louis wants to keep pace with Pittsburgh.
The trade for Morneau marked the second big move by the Pirates in five days as they try to beat out the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in baseball's tightest division race. Pittsburgh brought in Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the New York Mets on Tuesday.
Asked if he was encouraged by the way the Pirates' notoriously thrifty front office opened the checkbook to bring in three proven veterans, Burnett couldn't fight back a smile.
"That's what they're supposed to do," he said.
Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the NL in runs scored, one of the main reasons general manager Neal Huntington aggressively pursued Morneau. But the Pirates are averaging 5.2 runs per game during their current six-game homestand and Morneau's arrival gives MVP contender Andrew McCutchen and slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez some much-needed protection.
"Everybody knows we got better with the addition of Justin," Martin said. "He's an ex-MVP. He knows what he's doing out there. He's going to give you a productive at-bat and he lengthens the middle of the order."
For a night, however, it wasn't McCutchen, Alvarez or Morneau but role players who provided the pop as the Pirates clinched the season series over St. Louis.
Burnett got Pittsburgh started with an RBI single in the second, and Jose Tabata followed with one of his own to stake the Pirates to a 2-0 lead. It could have been worse after Lynn loaded the bases before striking out McCutchen to get out of the jam.
Lynn wasn't so fortunate one inning later. Alvarez led off with a double, Byrd singled him home and Garrett Jones walked. Martin stepped in and sent a fastball into the front row of seats in right-center for his second homer in two nights to give Pittsburgh a 6-1 lead. Walker added an RBI triple later in the inning.
While Lynn managed to stay in the game, he left after four innings following a miserable start in which he gave up seven runs on 10 hits with three walks and four strikeouts. His ERA rose to 4.29.
The deficit proved far too large for a suddenly reeling offense. The Cardinals lead the NL in batting average and runs but have scored just once in their last three games.
"We've had a few balls hit hard, but not a lot," manager Mike Matheny said. "I like what our offense has done over the majority of the season. You don't want to take a couple of games and start making conclusions. We're just going to keep going about it."
Burnett's control had something to do with it in front of the second-largest crowd in the 12-year history of PNC Park. Working both sides of the plate effectively, Burnett assured Pittsburgh heads into the final month of a remarkable season in first place for the first time since it won the NL East in 1992.
NOTES: Reliever John Axford , acquired on Friday from Milwaukee, pitched a perfect seventh in his Cardinals debut. ... The Pirates have outhomered St. Louis 18-3 in 15 meetings this season. ... St. Louis SS Pete Kozma grounded out while pinch-hitting for Lynn and is hitless in his last 29 at-bats. ... The series concludes Sunday. Joe Kelly (6-3, 2.91 ERA) starts for St. Louis against Kris Johnson (0-1, 3.00). ... The Cardinals have not settled on a starter for Tuesday in Cincinnati. Michael Wacha , Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons are all under consideration.
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP