PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Pittsburgh’s pitching staff continues to shine this season. Entering game action, the staff ERA of 3.33 ranked No. 3 in the Majors, second in the National League trailing only the Washington Nationals (2.90). The bullpen’s 2.47 ERA is the best in the N.L.
“Very impressive pitching all night tonight on the mound,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said.
Right-hander A.J. Burnett made his seventh start of the season on Friday night at PNC Park, although from the get-go, it looked like it could have been a short outing. Burnett needed 27 pitches to get through the first. A one-out infield single to Starlin Castro started the frame and Joe Mather followed with a single into shallow right field. Burnett whiffed his next two batters, including Alfonso Soriano swinging on an 0-2 fastball to end the inning.
Burnett tossed three scoreless innings, allowing two hits while striking out four. The veteran worked himself into a jam in the fifth inning, but was once again able to escape it. After allowing a two out walk, Castro picked up his second knock off Burnett to put runners on the corners. Burnett was able to get Mather to ground out to end the frame.
“They fouled a lot of balls off early,” Burnett said. “I think I threw 60 pitches to DeJesus and the shortstop. They battled me early. It’s just one of those days. Thankful we’ve got the bullpen we’ve got. A couple good plays behind me at first. A great play by Pedro at third, then the bullpen came in and do what they do best.”
After allowing a one-out single and a walk in the sixth, Hurdle called upon rookie Jared Hughes to escape the jam. Soriano slammed into Pedro Alvarez at third base for a force out, and Hughes got his next batter to groundout to keep the 1-0 lead intact. Hughes has made 10 straight scoreless appearances (11.2 innings) and dropped his Major League-leading rookie ERA to just 1.16 on the season.
“It was a good night for us,” Burnett said. “Gotta tip your cap to that bullpen. They came in earlier than they should and nailed it down.”
Overall, Burnett tossed 5.1 scoreless innings scattering six hits with two walks while punching out six. Burnett’s six strikeouts were the most since he whiffed 10 on May 8.
“I think if you draw up a way to have challenges off the mound, you don’t throw first pitch strikes and you pitch deep counts, as he pretty much did the whole time out there,” Hurdle said. “I think his experience and his moxy got him through as much as anything today. He had good stuff at times, but he had to pitch out of a number of jams today and corners to not give up a run.”
Righty Jason Grilli followed in relief and struck out the side in the seventh inning, two of them looking. Grilli has now whiffed six straight and has 33 strikeouts over 18.0 innings — at least one punch out in each appearance this season, which established a club record for a relief pitcher. The previous record for a Pittsburgh reliever to start a season with at least one punch out in their first 18 games was by Pete Schourek in 1999.
“The bullpen, they continue to find ways to get zeros,” Hurdle said.
Cruz and Hanrahan each tossed a scoreless inning in relief. Hanrahan allowed two hits, but whiffed his final two batters to end the game. The Pirates closer notched his 11th save of the season, including a save in each of his last five games.
“Joel found his way,” Hurdle said. “Tough hitter to strikeout DeJesus. And then follow up with arguably their best hitter in their lineup Castro. Big finish from Joel. And much needed.”
Battling Through One-Run Games
The Pirates continue to battle through one-run games this season. The club won, 1-0 over the Chicago Cubs on Friday night at PNC Park for their Major League-leading 21st one-run game in 2012. 27 of their 45 games overall have been decided by two runs or less leaving no margin for error. The defense and pitching continue to hold their ground, while the club’s bats were only able to plate one run.
“I don’t stress in there,” Hurdle said. “Men are out playing the game. We’ve got to find ways to execute…More World Cup Soccer than anything else. I consider myself a fan and I’m watching it. One run gets put on the board and I yell and scream. We were able to take advantage of an opportunity that was left to us today to score the one run.”
Pedro Alvarez led off the second inning with a single into right field. After advancing to second on the ground out by Matt Hague, Rod Barajas hit a RBI single into left field to the plate the first run. A great slide by Alvarez made the play close at home as right-fielder David DeJesus threw on target to the Cubs catcher. Alvarez slid and swiped his hand along home plate safely to beat out the tag.
“I was just running hard. Two outs. I was just trying to get a good jump so I could score,” Alvarez said. “Barmy was behind home plate telling me to get down. I saw the ball come in and tried to slide to the outside of the home plate.”
“Excellent slide,” Hurdle said. “The new school slide by the plate and throw your hand in there and tap it. He made a real nice cut around third as well. He had a real good break. He gave it everything he had.”
Rookie Hague Picks Up Hit in First Game Back with Pittsburgh
Infielder Matt Hague made was recalled from Triple-A today and was inserted in the lineup for Pittsburgh batting sixth and playing first base. It marked Hague’s third Major League start, and the first since April 8 at PNC Park. Hague went 1-for-3 on the night with a single. The infield single for Hague came with one out in the fourth inning. It was his second hit of his big league career.
“We’re going to keep running him out there,” Hurdle said. “He’s probably had some Opening Day jitters out there tonight. It’s the second Opening Day in a way. It’s always fun to be in the lineup and you win a ballgame.”
Karstens Set for Second Rehab Start
Right-hander Jeff Karstens allowed one hit over three scoreless frames in his first rehab start with Double-A Altoona on Monday. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out one while throwing 37 pitches, 25 for strikes. Karstens threw an extra eight pitches in the bullpen to reach the desired 45 pitch mark.
The next step for Karstens is his second rehab start set for Saturday for the Triple-A Indians in Indianapolis. Karstens will throw four innings or 60 pitches.
Karstens was placed on the 15-day disabled list on April 18 due to right shoulder inflammation.
Pirates to Face Former Teammate
Left-hander Paul Maholm will get the nod for the Chicago Cubs on Saturday night. Maholm will face Pittsburgh for the first time since the club declined his option at the end of the 2011 season. Maholm was drafted by the Pirates and spent parts of seven seasons in the Majors. So far in 2012 with the Cubs, Maholm has gone 4-3 with a 4.73 ERA.
“I think he gave us everything he had while he was here,” Hurdle said. “I know I enjoyed having him on the club last season. He was a polished professional. He was a veteran that went about his business the right way. Preparation was good. His commitment to his teammates was good. At the end of the day, we felt we needed to go in another direction.”
“I’m glad he’s healthy. I’m glad he’s in a good place. We’re going to do everything we can to get him to a bad place Saturday night. And he’s going to do everything he can to get us to a bad place Saturday. I think it will be kind of neat from that standpoint for a guy that had been a Pirate for a long period of time.”
Hot Rod Warming Up
Catcher Rod Barajas has been heating up at the dish. So far in May, Barajas has hit for a .280 clip, but has gone 14-for-35 in his last 10 games. Barajas has also connected for three doubles and four long balls in his last 17 overall.
The change in the veteran started two or three Sundays ago, when Barajas was out of the lineup and got in the cage with skipper Clint Hurdle.
“It’s reconnecting with his swing. What does he do well? Where is his contact potent?,” Hurdle said. “We tried to get a feel for his swing path. I tried to show him that I thought that it was a little bit out of sort. I told him also that I think we need to simplify the routine. We’ve got a lot of guys around here taking 400 swings a day. I’m not sure that’s the best answer all the time. I think we need to keep things simple. He took ownership of some of the things that I asked him to do. We just did some drills as far as swing paths, taking to the ball and through the ball, one-handed, both hands. Did some drills, soft-hard, spin stuff. He’s put that in play now.”