PITTSBURGH, PA — Not since Dock Ellis in 1974 has a Pittsburgh starting pitcher won more than six straight starts (Ellis won eight). But on Friday night in front of a sell out crowd at PNC Park, A.J. Burnett put himself in with pretty good company by winning his seventh straight in the Pirates 4-1 victory over Detroit.
“As long as we are winning out there, it’s all good,” Burnett said. “It’s not about me out there. It’s about passing the baton from what J-Mac did and our starters have been doing.”
Burnett was impressive on the mound for the Pirates. He tossed six scoreless innings while striking out four Tigers. The right-hander didn’t give up his first hit until two outs in the fourth. The only jam that Burnett worked himself into came in his final inning in the sixth. A leadoff single by Austin Jackson and five pitch walk started the Tigers rally, but a quickly turned double play to Miguel Cabrera and pop out ended the scoreless frame.
“I just felt like I was beating him here and there with the fastball so I stuck with it,” Burnett said of facing his former teammate Cabrera. “We were two-seaming it, and four-seaming it. He really didn’t know which way it was going I think. I had him leaning out over and was able to get one in on him.”
“I think he was able to slow things down and rely on his experience, rely on his catcher and find a way to make pitches,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “No bigger pitch than the 94th one of the night. The ground ball double play off the bat of a very good, one of the best hitters in baseball. That was as big as anything that happened all night.”
At home this season, Burnett has been nothing but brilliant. He has gone 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA in seven starts at PNC Park this year — which ranks fourth in the National League. And if you were to erase one outing from Burnett this season — the 12 run outing over just 2.2 innings in St. Louis — the veteran has just a 1.87 ERA over his other 11 starts.
When Burnett was acquired from the New York Yankees on February 19, he was coming off a 2011 season in which he posted a 5.15 ERA over 32 starts. During Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla., Burnett admitted that he lost the joy in baseball. But what you saw in New York and what you see in Pittsburgh are two very different guys on the mound.
Burnett is having fun again.
“From the get-go,” Burnett said with a smile. “From the get-go with these guys. I mean my first day in spring. From Daniel McCutchen and the jersey thing, him messing with me. Then [Neil] Walker. He was all over me from the get-go. The guys just accepted me.”
You see it when he walks off the mound and the way he acts around his teammates in the clubhouse and in the dugout. And the club rallies around him. Starter James McDonald attributes his All-Star worthy season to the guidance he’s received from Burnett. The right-hander even had cutoff tees made that the players wear around the clubhouse that say ‘prepare for domination’, Burnett’s motto.
“I think its been a win-win for both sides,” Hurdle said on what Burnett has meant to this club. “I think the environment has been conducive for where A.J. is in his point in time in his career. I think his mindset coming in wanting to be the staff ace is good. He’s modeling behavior. He’s leading by example. He’s really shown our young staff really the importance of the other four days, not just the day you take the ball. It’s been good for us and it’s been good for him. We’ve got a long way to go still, but he’s definitely made an impact.”
After notching his first seven-game winning streak since he accomplished that feat with the Florida Marlins in 2005, Burnett was quick to credit his battery mate after the game.
“I got to give credit to Rod,” Burnett said. “It’s different. It goes back to when I had him in ‘08. You look down off the mound and you see your catchers eyes and you see that he has more confidence than you have in yourself. You just take a deep breath and it’s different with him back there. I feel like I can make a pitch when I need to and roll with him…It’s been nothing but a blast to work with him again.”
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Barajas said of their relationship. “We had great times in Toronto in 2008 and just to get him back — it’s just fun. He comes to the field and he enjoys it everyday. It just rubs off on you. To be back with and be able to work with him…Him pitching the way he is, it’s been great.”
The Pirates already have worthy candidates of Andrew McCutchen and James McDonald to represent Pittsburgh in the All-Star game. Could the 35-year-old get the nod for the first time in his career this season? He’s definitely deserving of it.
Offense Greets Fister With Four Runs
Right-hander Doug Fister has never faced the Pirates before, but that didn’t stop the club’s hot offense from cooling down. The Pirates greeted Fister with three straight hits and two runs in the first inning.
Alex Presley ripped a double down the right field line to start the bottom of the first inning. Neil Walker followed with a line drive base hit into left field to plate the first run of the game. With Andrew McCutchen at the plate, Fister threw a wild pitch to push Walker to second base. A broken bat knock to left by McCutchen put runners on the corners. The second run of the frame scored after Garrett Jones grounded into a double play to push Walker across home plate.
“I think this team is starting to find different ways to score runs,” Barajas said. “We’re stringing hits together. Guys are hitting balls out of the park. We’ve just got to keep positive and keep doing the same thing.”
For the second straight inning, the Pirates attacked Fister from the get-go. Back-to-back singles from Pedro Alvarez and Rod Barajas set up another two run frame. Two costly errors paid off big for the Bucs. Burnett dropped down a sac bunt, but Fister attempted to get Alvarez at third and his throw sailed into left field allowing the first run to score. Barajas advanced to third on the error, and trucked on home after the left fielder bobbled the ball.
“It didn’t beat his last one when he had to roll over and reach for home,” Burnett said laughing. “That’s what we got here. We’ve got 25 guys that hustle for nine innings.”
“You want to score runs early and often,” Barajas said. “It turned out that was the last run that we scored in the game. I was able to kind of get the read. I saw Delmon [Young] drop the ball. I said, ‘Alright. Let me take a chance here. Let me go after it.’ It worked out.”
From there, Fister tossed four scoreless innings and the Pirates were unable to score off the Tigers bullpen. The lone run allowed by the Bucs came in the seventh inning. Right-hander Jared Hughes gave up back-to-back doubles and a walk with two outs before lefty Tony Watson ended the frame with a punchout swinging.
Karstens on Track for Rehab Start on Sunday; TBA for Thursday in Philly
Jeff Karstens is on track to make his final rehab start on Sunday with Triple-A, Hurdle said. The right-hander cruised through his last rehab start with the Double-A Curve and threw seven innings, striking out five. He needed just 78 pitches. Karstens said on Thursday that he felt ready to step into the rotation now, but the club wants him to make one final start before rejoining the Pirates staff. Karstens is not on an innings limit or pitch count.
“Jeff, right now, is scheduled to pitch in that slot [Sunday],” Hurdle said.
How Karstens will be inserted back into the rotation if all goes well is still to be determined. Thursday’s pitching probable in Philadelphia is listed as TBA. That spot would be Brad Lincoln’s turn in the rotation. He will make the spot start on Saturday against Detroit.
“It’s TBA right now,” Hurdle said. “We’re thinking through things and trying to weigh all our options and how we might be best served going forward.”
“There’s a lot of things that you can figure into that spot. Jeff very well could fit in that slot. We’ll wait and see. We’re just taking it one day at a time. Still having internal discussion with what we want to do with the rotation, how it plays out. Looking forward to our boy A.J. pitch tonight. I’m looking forward to seeing Brad pitch tomorrow and we’ll see what [Kevin] Correia is able to bring for us on Sunday.”
Lincoln Ready to Compete on Saturday
After Brad Lincoln exited his last outing in Cleveland by allowing four runs over 3.1 innings, he said he needed to focus more on two-out hits. Three of the four runs that scored off Lincoln came after retiring the first two batters. The right-hander is getting the opportunity to make his fifth start of the season, fourth since moving from the bullpen, on Saturday. Lincoln said he used his time between outings to focus on fastball location.
“Especially when I do get ahead in the count, be able to put the ball off the plate instead of on the corner,” Lincoln said. “I worked on that a lot in my bullpen. Just being able to throw my breaking ball for an out pitch instead of being so constantly worried about getting it over for a strike. It tends to hurt me when I do get deep in the count.”
Lincoln has posted a 7.64 ERA over his four starts this season, while just an 0.45 ERA from the bullpen. While he’s been dominant in relief, Hurdle said the reason they wanted to give him another start was to give him plenty of looks as a starter.
“With the premium in this game placed on starting pitching, we want to make sure we give it an ample opportunity to see what we might be able to see by extended looks,” Hurdle said. “He has put in the work and the effort, the preparation. I think we have continued to show patience in a lot of different areas and this is just another one we’re going to show a little more patience to.”
“The transition period has definitely been a difficult one for me right now,” Lincoln said of getting another opportunity to prove himself as a starter. “Just being able to go out there and compete and be who I am is the main thing. And not worry about the results. Just go out there and go after guys and do what I do best and see what happens.”