At long last, A.J. Burnett completed what he started. Nine innings, 110 pitches, wrapping up the Pirates’ 5-1 series-winning victory over the Colorado Rockies all by himself.
Well, not all by himself. Moments after PNC Park erupted for Burnett finishing his first home win in three months, Burnett enveloped catcher Russell Martin in an embrace next to the pitcher’s mound. The two men stood together again in success after their Yankees playoff run two years ago.
“[Russell's] more important than anybody. He’s back there with me every pitch,” Burnett said. “Any time you get a thought or you get distracted, all you got to do is look in that mask and you see Russ. He’s in every pitch.”
Both ends of the veteran pitcher-catcher duo are more than happy to share the praise for Sunday’s win. Martin supplied the key offense once Colorado starter Juan Nicasio (4.1 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 4 K) exited and left Manny Corpas to try to strand two runners in the 5th inning.
“He’s a guy who throws a lot of sliders,” Martin said. “So I decided to wait for one.”
He only had to wait one pitch. Martin turned on Corpas’ first pitch, a slider left up in the zone, and it curved just inside the left-field foul pole for a three-run home run. His 10th homer of the season turned a 2-0 Pirates lead into a 5-0 Pirates lead, more than enough breathing room for Burnett to coast the rest of the way.
“This is probably the best I’ve ever seen him,” Martin said. “He was just really locating all his pitches. Fastball was great. He had a great breaking ball today… He gave some really good hitters a hard time today.”
A Gem for A.J.
Martin said Burnett was not as sharp in his first few starts following a right calf strain, but has improved in every start since. Sunday afternoon, the right-hander commanded his breaking ball and two fastballs along the edges and below the zone to strike out nine hitters while he walked only one. He scattered eight hits over the start, allowing his only run in the 7th inning as Jonathan Herrera (who had a game-high three hits) knocked a two-out line-drive RBI single.
“It’s tough to be up there and hit a pitch that’s breaking 14 inches and then hit a fastball that’s 93 with movement,” Martin said. “It was just a tough at-bat for anybody today.”
Manager Clint Hurdle said it was Burnett’s “best game, best stuff, best command” but was perhaps most impressed by Burnett’s efficiency in completing the game over 11o pitches. By retiring 14 of his 33 Rockies batters on three pitches or fewer and getting 26 of 33 first-pitch strikes, Hurdle said there was no discussion about taking him out before the 9th inning.
“That’s a good offensive club. They can do some things and he was able to work through the middle of the order pretty efficiently,” Hurdle, the former Colorado manager, said. “[Burnett was] very aggressive, very focused. Ball’s down. He took it to ‘em.”
And it was capped by that “old-fashioned bear hug,” as Martin described it, in front of the mound. As what remained of the sellout crowd stood, applauded and cheered their adopted heroes, Burnett felt the embrace from not just Martin but 37,980 fans who chanted “A-J A-J A-J.”
“They know what kind of team we have. They know it’s different. We expect to win,” Burnett said. “They’re in every pitch, every count. ‘A-J’ chants give you goosebumps on the mound in the 9th inning.”
Martin knows it’s different from the Pittsburgh teams that finished with losing records every year since 1993. These Bucs are still in command of baseball’s best record and a 1.5-game lead in the National League Central.
“It’s a team thing. It’s the new Pirates,” Martin said. “I think the 20 years, it’s about to be over.”
Epilogue: Walker’s Rundown
Smart baserunning from Neil Walker helped the Pirates go up 2-0 in the 3rd inning. The situation: Walker led off the frame by doubling to left and stood on third with the bases loaded, no outs. Russell Martin hit a sharp grounder to third base and Walker says he immediately saw third baseman DJ LeMahieu step on the base to force out Andrew McCutchen.
“I know it’s not a forceout situation at home,” Walker said. “So my job is try to stay in a rundown as long as I can to possibly get the runner from first to third and the runner hitting to second base.”
It didn’t work out that way. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba caught the throw from LeMahieu, and Walker reversed course. Instead of forcing a rundown, though, Torrealba chased Walker back to third. Walker got back to the base safely without a rundown or a tag from Torrealba.
“Andrew was standing [at third]. I thought either Andrew didn’t see the guy touch third base or the catcher didn’t see the third baseman touch third base. I thought they were confused,” Walker said. “Once I got on the base, I knew that only one of us was out, and it was not the lead runner.”
He did not want to run into an out unless he felt like he could score. By getting safely back to third, Walker scored when next batter Garrett Jones hit a sacrifice fly. Very smart, Neil Walker.