For the first couple innings of Saturday night’s game, it looked as though the Cincinnati Reds had properly shifted the momentum of their win Friday into the next day’s game. Brandon Phillips scored on a RBI single by Ryan Ludwick in the first, and Zack Cozart homered leading off the second for a two-run lead at the expense of Pirates starter A.J. Burnett.
“That’s kind of the only pitch that I ran back the middle. He put a good swing on it and jumped on one,” Burnett said. “Sometimes you’ve gotta be woken up and I was woken up early.”
The wake-up call to Burnett worked as the Pirates assumed control while Burnett found his mojo en route to 12 strikeouts and the Pirates defeated the Reds 4-2 to gain revenge after Friday night’s gut-punch loss.
The turnaround started after Cozart’s homer as Burnett seemingly decided he was just going to strike out the majority of the rest of the batters he faced. Following the home run, Burnett retired 18 of 21 batters with 12 of those outs coming via the punch-out.
“He had good tempo, just off early, which stretched out the pitch count and made for some extended at bats. I thought his fastball got better,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Ray [Searage] and I were talking in the dugout, it just seemed he had a little better angle. He got his hand and his arm up just a little bit higher. It went out hotter, with a little bit more movement and better velocity.”
The only blemishes on Burnett’s record came on a walk issued to Ryan Hanigan in the second, a single allowed to Joey Votto in the third, and a walk to Ludwick in the sixth.
In near unison with Burnett’s turnaround after Cozart’s solo shot, his battery mate provided the pop necessary to tie the game at 2-2. Pedro Alvarez reached first with two outs when first baseman Joey Votto couldn’t handle a ground ball, and Russell Martin slammed a two-run home run into the left field seats off Homer Bailey.
“It was good for him to come up with a big knock too tonight,” Burnett said. “He likes to hit when I pitch.”
Beyond the home run, the Pirates took advantage of mistakes made by Cincinnati to gain the lead. Andrew McCutchen walked in the sixth, and advanced to third when Bailey’s pick-off throw missed first base.
After a walk issued to Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd hit a fly ball to deep right-center field to score McCutchen. Pedro Alvarez extended the lead to 4-2 with a single to left off reliever Zach Duke that scored Morneau from second.
“Anytime your foot’s in the door you got to push through. We were able to do that,’ Hurdle said. “Petey getting down the line on the error and then Russell put a big swing on the bat, then again with McCutchen, the pick-off and Byrd picks him up with a sac fly.”
With the way Bailey pitched alongside Burnett, the Pirates needed to capitalize on the opportunities Cincinnati’s miscues presented them.
“It was a well-pitched game by both sides tonight,” Hurdle said. “You look at the hits up on the board and the strikeouts, there wasn’t a lot of room for error.”
Burnett (9-11) finished after throwing 107 pitches over seven innings, and allowed two runs on four hits and three walks. Burnett capped his start with a strikeout of pinch-hitter Henry Rodriguez after which he unleashed a vicious fist pump.
“I kind of felt if I put the hook in the right spot he’d swing over it and it happened,” Burnett said. “A packed house like this, I feed off that. They’re up cheering, screaming, and it brings it out of you 100 percent.”
Burnett’s ninth strikeout of the night was also no. 200 for him on the season, a milestone he achieved for the third time in his career. Burnett’s 12 strikeouts were also the most he registered in a single game since he struck out a dozen batters in a Yankee uniform on Aug. 27, 2009.
The biggest factor in Burnett’s success in generating swings and misses was a curveball that Martin said was about as good as he’d ever seen from Burnett.
“He just had a devastating breaking ball. His curveball was just really sharp and late break, and the hitters just couldn’t really pick it up,” Martin said. “When he has that type of curveball, it’s going to be tough to hit for any hitter.”
When the bullpen entered Saturday, it was able to hold the lead as opposed to the events that transpired Friday. Bryan Morris retired Derrick Robinson leading off the eighth, but walked Phillips.
Hurdle then brought on left-hander Justin Wilson to face Votto, who induced an inning-ending double play off the bat of Votto to Clint Barmes at short.
And, as an added emotional boost, Jason Grilli notched his first save since July 21. Grilli entered the game in a save situation for the first time since his return from the disabled list.
Grilli’s ninth started on edge as Ryan Ludwick took a 2-2 offering to left field for a leadoff basehit. Jay Bruce, who hit a game-tying home run against Grilli in Cincinnati earlier this season to hand Grilli his first blown save of the year, then grounded into a double play which sent momentum back to the man they call “Cheese”.
Cozart was unable to replicate his earlier success, and grounded out to short to end the game as Grilli earned save no. 31.
“It’s huge man, huge for him. I know he’s been wanting that chance, and wanting that opportunity,” Burnett said. “To get out there and get through that ninth, and punch Russ a couple times in the chest, that’s what he does.”
For Grilli, the save represents an achievement after the stretch of adversity he went through following his return from the DL that saw him make three straight appearances in which he was unable to finish the inning he entered.
“It feels good,” Grilli said. “It’s nice to get back on the horse and do what I’ve done.”