PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The A.J. Burnett that Pittsburgh has seen so far in 2012 has been impressive to watch. Not only is he making a difference while on the mound, but he’s also making a difference in the clubhouse. The Bucs wear “Prepare for Domination” cut off t-shirts that have the No. 34 on the back — Burnett’s motto. If you ask any player in the clubhouse about Burnett, they say he’s a leader.
“He’s got a lot of confidence on the mound,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “And a lot of experience to draw from. I think he’s in a good place as far as his comfort zone. This has been a good environment. He’s added to it. I think the fact that the guys know we added a veteran player with a lot of experience that’s not going anywhere.”
“We didn’t bring him in to try him out for a while or try him out for a couple months. He’s here. He’s been able to drop anchor. The guys have fed off his energy, his leadership. I think the younger team has helped him rekindle him. He’s got a lot of things on his to do list still.”
“We’re playing good ball now,” Burnett said. “We’re hitting on a couple cylinders and it’s fun to watch. It’s a good group. It’s a good team.”
Although Burnett has already checked off the no-hitter off his to-do list, it didn’t stop him from flirting with one on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park against the Kansas City Royals.
Burnett needed just five pitches to retire the side in order to start the game. And from there, he cruised before allowing his first base runner — a two-out walk — in the fourth inning. Still no hits.
He worked himself into a jam in the next frame. Burnett issued a one-out walk and hit a batter, but got an inning ending double play to end the fifth inning. Still no hits through five.
But Burnett’s no-hit bit got broken up with one-out in the sixth inning. Alex Gordon connected for a base knock to right field. The veteran received a standing ovation and loud cheers from the crowd at PNC Park. Burnett said he was aware of the no-no.
“[Catcher] Rod [Barajas] was all over me in the dugout about it,” Burnett said with a laugh.
The right-hander allowed a run in the seventh, two doubles plated the first run of the game and snapped his 18.2 streak where he didn’t allow an earned run on the bump in Pittsburgh. Burnett took the mound in the 8th inning and gave up back-to-back singles with one out before Hurdle pulled him from the game. The righty tipped his cap to the standing O from the crowd.
“The only pitch I’d take back is the breaking ball that got the guy to second base on the wild pitch to put him in scoring position,” Burnett said. “But beside that, it was a good ballgame.”
Lefty Tony Watson entered the game to inherit two base runners. Watson’s 28 inherited runners are tied for third-most in the Majors. First baseman Eric Hosmer grounded into a force out to erase the runner at second, but allowed a run to score. Pinch-hitter Billy Butler drew a walk, before Hurdle called upon Juan Cruz, who gave up a free pass to load the bases. Mitch Maier got caught looking on a 1-2 pitch to end the inning and keep the one-run lead.
“The biggest thing for me has been the consistency of the command of all the pitches,” Hurdle said of Burnett’s success this season. “I had charted him a lot in 2010. We saw him a number of times with the Rangers. He is defiantly more consistent. The walks have dropped way down. The strikeouts are in a good place. Very good. His WHIP is down dramatically.”
Overall, Burnett allowed two runs on five hits over 7.1 innings. He walked two and struck out five while throwing a season-high 107 pitches. In his last nine starts since allowing 12 earned runs in St. Louis, Burnett has posted just a 1.98 ERA over 59.2 innings and has won five straight decisions.
“It’s more of a motivation to keep it going,” Burnett said. “That’s in the past. I don’t think about it no more. The way we’ve been playing, the way we’ve been pitching, you want to go out there and keep it going. You got a chance for a big weekend to sweep. I just wanted to go out, try to attack and keep them in it.”
“The breaking ball was very effective to left-handed hitters,” Hurdle said. “There are some fine left-handed hitters on that ball club. It kind of held them at bay. Pitch efficiency was better. For him to get into the eighth inning, it enabled us to match up the way we wanted to. Good tempo, good rhythm today on a hot day he was really efficient with things. It was a very, very solid performance all across the board for A.J.”
Offense –All McCutchen
There is a reason that Andrew McCutchen was an All-Star for Pittsburgh last season. And on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, the center fielder continues his solid campaign for a second trip to represent the National League.
After Alex Presley led off the first inning with a base knock, McCutchen drove him in with a double into the gap in right-center field. The extra-base hit snapped his 0-for-9 streak without a hit. In his next at-bat, McCutchen launched his 11th home run of the season off the lefty Bruce Chen in the third inning for a two-run shot to left field. The outfielder finished the day 2-for-3 (also an intentional walk) while raising his season average to an impressive .325.
“I hit it fairly well,” McCutchen said of the long ball. “He left it up and I was able to put my bat on it.”
McCutchen trails only the Dodgers Matt Kemp for the most homers by a National League center fielder (12). He’s also one of just three players in the Majors to hit at least 10 home runs and swipe 10 bags this season. The Brewers Ryan Braun and Marlins Hanley Ramirez are the others.
The Pirates are 8-1 when the opposing team calls upon a southpaw to start on the bump, and McCutchen has loved facing them this year. He entered game action with a league-leading .442 average against left-handers and has 17 hits in his last 29 at-bats against them.
“It’s just one of those things, I guess,” McCutchen said. “Just see them a little better. I hadn’t been feeling that great the past few days. Figured a couple things out in the cage and was able to pretty much put a show for it today.”
All three runs scored from Pittsburgh were driven in by McCutchen. The club combined for just five on the day off the Royals in the 3-2 win, two from McCutchen. The Pirates swept the Royals and have won 12 of their last 15 games.
Grilli Gets Opportunity to Close
With Joel Hanrahan unavailable from the Pirates bullpen on Sunday after pitching on three straight games and four of his last five, Jason Grilli was given the opportunity to notch his first save of the season — and his third in his Major League career.
“I think from the replay, I felt pretty good,’ Grilli said of his emotion on the mound after ending the game. “I think it was a la [Tigers Jose] Valverde or a Tiger Woods. That’s what guys have been saying. I just had so much adrenaline running through me I just let it out. Who knows, maybe I’ll be in the box in Kangaroo court for doing a little showmanship. I’m just going to be me. That’s what I felt. I enjoyed it. It was a thrill to close the game for us today.”
The 35-year-old is having a breakout season in Pittsburgh. Grilli’s save didn’t come without emotion. After allowing a leadoff single to Alcides Escobar, he issued a one-out walk in the one-run game. But Grilli whiffed each of his next two batters, which included a caught looking to Johnny Giavotella to end the game.
“It’s definitely something that, when you get the chance to do it, it’s thrilling when the crowd’s on their feet,” Grilli said. “I can’t say enough about our closer. He’s done a heckuva job. It’s been a pleasure and an honor setting up for him. It’s a lot more difficult than it’s made out to be. When the game’s on the line, you just want to stop the bleeding and put that final nail in the coffin.”
Grilli has struck out 13 of the last 30 batters he’s faced and overall has 39 whiffs over 24.0 innings. The righty has not been charged with an earned run in his last 13.0 innings.
Leroux Rehabbing with Triple-A
Chris Leroux had his rehab assignment moved to Triple-A Indianapolis from High-A Bradenton today. The right-hander has been on the disabled list with a right pectoral muscle strain since April 4. During his last start with the Marauders, Leroux allowed one run on two hits over 3.0 innings. He walked one and struck out two.
“He’s going to pitch out of the bullpen,” Hurdle said. “He’s healthy. He’s ready to go so he’ll be used accordingly…Will be used multiple innings. I anticipate that’s the way the work’s going to go. That’s what we build him up to. He’s thrown some one inning starts. He actually threw three innings the other day already. They’ll play the games accordingly, but there will be some strategically timed things where he’s going to get stretched out and throw a volume of pitches.”