A.J. Burnett Provides Bright Spot in Pirates’ Disappointing 3-2 Loss to Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Tonight was a game that only September baseball could bring.

In a chaotic, wacky, up-and-down affair, the Chicago Cubs defeated the Pirates in 12 innings 3-2 in a game that featured seven stolen bases, four errors, a controversial play at the plate and 43 different players used between the two teams.

Despite the loss, A.J. Burnett provided the Pirates with a big positive to take away from tonight’s game. One of the big questions surrounding the Pirates heading towards October was: which starters would slot into the third and fourth position of the rotation in a five-game playoff series? With the uncertainty concerning the availability of Burnett because of the his flexor tendon strain in his pitching elbow, it looked as if the answers to that question were going to be J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton, which would be a bit unsettling considering Happ’s inconsistent track record, despite his recent strong stretch, and Morton’s enigmatic nature.

However, since Burnett has returned from the disabled list last week, he has looked closer to the pitcher that he was in his remarkable first half of the season.

Tonight, Burnett’s outing went similarly to J.A. Happ’s in last night’s game. The Cubs had a runner in scoring position in all but one of Burnett’s first five innings, but he was able to keep the Cubs off the board in each of those innings. In the sixth inning, however, the Cubs were able to break through against Burnett after Kris Bryant doubled home Anthony Rizzo. After Miguel Montero singled Bryant to third base, Jared Hughes replaced Burnett and a second run was charged to Burnett when Starlin Castro executed a safety squeeze perfectly. Like Happ the previous night, Burnett was unable to complete the sixth inning, but was able to minimize the damage to just two earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched, while striking out seven Cubs batters.

“I thought he had a real good night out there,” Hurdle said following the game. “He was in the stretch a lot, and that’s when he really went to work. He mixed his pitches up. The curveball played big, he threw a lot of change-ups. So I thought it was another real nice step forward [for Burnett].”

Burnett has shown signs of rust since returning from the DL, but tonight his fastball velocity played consistently in the low-90s, and his curveball induced the swing-and-misses that he is accustomed to getting – five of his strikeouts tonight came via his curveball. Overall, Burnett is happy with his progression since his return to the rotation.

“I’m getting there I think. I think tonight was way better than the first start,” Burnett exclaimed. “It’s just one of those things, I haven’t been out there and getting back out on the mound and getting into the environment – Cubs being in town, it’s exciting.”

“I feel great. I don’t feel anything at all. It’s just a matter of getting a little more strike one’s to certain guys and putting guys away. I did a decent job of that with guys on-base but like I said I’d like to stay in the windup a little more.”

Having a healthy and effective Burnett, along with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, would provide the Pirates with the stability necessary in their starting rotation to compete in a potential playoff series.

** Unfortunately for the Pirates, if they aren’t able to overtake the Cardinals for the division title, setting up their playoff rotation will be a moot point unless they can win the one-game Wild Card game against the Cubs. With the Pirates loss tonight and another Cardinals victory, the Pirates have fallen four games behind St. Louis with just 17 games remaining. The Pirates have an unfavorable schedule the final two and a half weeks of the season, with trips to Los Angeles and Chicago on the horizon, facing the first-place Dodgers and the Cubs. Meanwhile, only six of the Cardinals’ remaining 17 games, including three in Pittsburgh, will be against teams with records over .500.

Jake Arrieta gave the Pirates just another preview of what they may be faced with in the likely Wild Card match-up. Arrieta dominated again tonight, pitching eight innings while only giving up one earned run. In four starts against the Pirates this season, Arrieta has allowed only three earned runs and has given up only 17 hits in 29 innings. Besides Madison Bumgarner, for obvious reasons, Arrieta could be the one pitcher in baseball that the Pirates wouldn’t want to face in a one-game elimination scenario.

“Arrieta is always going to be tough. He’s one of the toughest guys in the league this year,” Aramis Ramirez said. “We’ll have to bring our A-game if we do [face Arrieta] in the Wild Card game.”

** The Pirates will look for a critical series split tomorrow in a get-away afternoon game beginning at 12:35. Charlie Morton will take the hill for the Pirates while the Cubs will send out Kyle Hendricks.

  • It is all going to come down to a one game play in. I hate that format. Other teams with poorer records get in because they win in a weaker division. Those dam Cardinals never lose and now we have the Cubs nipping at our heels. Can we beat the Cubs at Wrigley with Arreita on the hill?

  • Jake Arrieta has given up more than two earned runs in just 8 of 30 starts this season, and all but one of those performances featured him giving up a home run.

    The guy doesn’t walk batters and doesn’t give up many hits, making it extremely difficult to string enough events together in order to score runs without power.

    This means, for better or worse, Pedro Alvarez must play the Wild Card game over Jordy Mercer. Mercer’s bat has been awful since returning and has never shown the ability to hit RHP, let alone that of Arrieta’s caliber. While Mercer’s defense is good it is far from game changing, and the last few games have made it crystal clear that inserting one good defender into a poor defense ballclub does not fix the problem.

    I don’t see any way the Pirates win this game without scoring runs, and for all his faults Alvarez is still the fifth best hitter on this club right now.

  • It was a thoroughly enjoyable game to watch. Not necessarily a superbly well played game by either side though.

    Pirates need to show more aggressiveness on base paths if and when they face Arrieta in WC game. He is susceptible to giving up stolen bases and their Catcher doesn’t have the most accurate arm.

  • Has Worley come into a game this year as a RP and not given up a run(s)? I don’t think he is cut out for the relief role. I like Harrison’s aggressive play but he needs to be smarter on the base paths. He has been thrown out quite a few times this year behind Cutch batting and trying to steal 2nd and then last night he should have stayed at 3rd when we had them on their heals for the first time in the game.

    • They had someone caught between 1st and 2nd anyway. That’s most likely the third out there. So it’s probably actually a good play by Harrison to at least try to score there.

  • They competed with those aces of Chicago. I was hoping for a split since we were playing at home. But there’s no shame in the loss. I hope for the series split later today.

    With that said, one has to wonder how far this team can really go in the playoffs. If you can’t find a way to beat the aces at home in September against a team you will see again in October, it’s simply reason to be very concerned. Again, no shame in either loss, but it’s a major statement by the cubbies on our own turf. That team can flat out hit! And they have two aces that could advance them far in the playoffs. This Pirates staff is darn good, but I worry that the offense won’t help the starters enough in a one game playoff.

    Regardless, this franchise has given must of us what we had dreamed to see for so long, and that was winning again and restoring respect. But now it’s time for this franchise to take it to the next level and show that they are a serious world championship contender. I’m not sure that I see that this year, but I’m confident enough in NH and this organization that the ultimate goal is indeed insight … and soon.