Seeing the Houston Astros again must make the Pirates nostalgic for last year, when Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett strapped the team to their back in the first half and carried them to first place on their own will.
So it was again for the Pirates (25-18) in a 4-2 loss Saturday night at PNC Park. McCutchen hit two doubles and scored the two Pittsburgh runs while Burnett struck out seven hitters and allowed only one run on his bobblehead night. Otherwise, the Bucs stranded nine runners and the normally-dynamite bullpen coughed up three runs for the Astros (12-31) to win in 11 innings.
“I just kept getting stronger as the game went on,” Burnett said after his seven innings of work.
The Astros earned their two runs in the 11th off reliever Bryan Morris. After Morris escaped the 10th on a double play (one of four turned by the Pirates), Jason Castro led off the 11th by doubling off the center-field wall. Carlos Peña was intentionally walked with one out, then Morris’ wild pitch advanced both runners into scoring position. Matt Dominguez hit a grounder to second baseman Neil Walker, who threw home but couldn’t beat Castro.
Clint Hurdle was tossed for arguing with home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor, but Dominguez remained safe for the go-ahead run. Pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez’s RBI single added insurance.
“The ump made the right call. He made a good call,” Hurdle admitted. “He got a good look at it and he got it right.”
Rookie Jose Cisnero was a hero out of the bullpen, following Erik Bedard’s quality start with 3.2 scoreless innings and five strikeouts. Closer Jose Veras mopped up the Pirates 1-2-3 in the 11th for the save, snapping the Bucs’ four-game winning streak.
Quality for A.J.
Burnett held true to his ace-level billing with another strong showing. The first inning was classic Burnett, loading the bases before striking out Chris Carter and Carlos Peña to escape unscathed. His only bump was in the 5th, as the Astros scored without hitting the ball out of the infield. Jose Altuve’s RBI single toward third baseman Brandon Inge, who was trying to keep the ball in front of him, drove in Houston’s lone run off Burnett.
“The balls that they hit were in spots where you couldn’t really do anything with it,” Inge said. “We’re one of the better infields in the league, for sure.”
Hurdle was encouraged that Burnett was more efficient and retired 11 hitters on three pitches or less. Burnett didn’t care.
“I ain’t changing nothing,” Burnett said. “I went seven innings. Why would I? What do you want?”
For a pitcher who was so erratic in New York, Burnett has become the picture of consistency. In all 10 starts, he has allowed three earned runs or fewer and has struck out at least six hitters. Now he has pitched seven innings in all four of his May starts, allowing a tired bullpen (second-most innings in MLB) some rest.
Despite four walks Saturday, Burnett used two double plays to keep the Astros at bay and reduced his season ERA to 2.57. And yes, he still leads the National League with 79 strikeouts, getting 11 swings and misses with his curveball.
“It was all right,” Burnett said. “I could have used the two-seamer a little better into lefties. I was missing more in than normal.”
Cutch Keeps Happening
As for McCutchen, he opened his 1st inning with a double that one-hopped the right field wall, scoring on a double by Gaby Sanchez in the next at-bat. The sharp hits keep coming for the Pirates’ All-Star center fielder, who now owns an .817 OPS after a slow start.
The Pirates did not get another runner into scoring position until the 6th, when McCutchen struck again with a double just inside the left-field line to move Jose Tabata to third base. Though Tabata was thrown out at home by third baseman Matt Dominguez, McCutchen scored on Brandon Inge’s RBI single to put the Pirates ahead 2-1. Andrew McCutchen has scored five of the Pirates’ last eight runs, but Neil Walker left the bases loaded with a popout in that 6th frame.
“We had at-bats that we weren’t able to capitalize on to that create separation,” Hurdle said, and the Pirates did leave nine runners on base, which the manager called “too many.”
Houston Creates A Problem
The Astros would not go softly, though, hitting three singles off former Houston closer Mark Melancon to tie the game in the 8th. All-Star Jose Altuve lined one of those singles for his team-high third hit, his first game back from bereavement. The tying run scored by Trevor Crowe on Chris Carter’s RBI single snapped Melancon’s 13-scoreless-inning streak, dating back to April 14.
“That’s pretty real good,” Hurdle said about Melancon’s month-long streak.
The Cardinals lost as well Saturday night, meaning the Pirates remain 2.5 games back in the NL Central. The Reds won handily, though, pushing the Bucs into third play in the division.