Pirates' Burnett loses battle of aces
A.J. Burnett allowed one ball to leave the infield Wednesday at PNC Park. Against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, it was one mistake too many.
A single loss of location by Burnett — a seventh-inning fastball that leaked over the plate and was re-routed by Jesus Montero into right-center seats — was the difference in a 2-1 Mariners win in a game that lived up to its billing as a matchup of dueling aces.
“It was the only pitch to a righty that came over the plate all day,” Burnett said. “You hate to look at one pitch because you start questioning yourself. But I'm not going to. I went out there with conviction. What can you say? It was a pitchers' duel.”
Burnett (3-3) nearly matched Hernandez (5-2), who has three top-five Cy Young finishes since 2009.
Burnett retired the first nine Mariners in order, requiring only 33 pitches. He located his fastball well early and effectively mixed in some changeups, which he rarely throws, generating swings and misses from lefties Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager.
But he lost his command in the fourth. He walked Saunders and Jason Bay to begin the frame. Saunders scored on a wild pitch.
Burnett did not allow a hit until one out in the fifth when Endy Chavez reached on an infield single. The only other hit Burnett allowed was the home run to his former teammate, Montero.
“I caught him a lot in spring training for a couple of years, so every time we get together we talk about things,” said Montero, who played with Burnett with the Yankees. “He's a good guy. But that's how the game is.”
Burnett allowed two earned runs in seven innings. He entered the game leading the National League in strikeouts (57) and added nine more. He walked four. Of the 109 pitches he threw, 67 were strikes.
“The game was as advertised, with two pitchers out there battling like two kids in the backyard,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “One ball left the infield. … That was a grown man doing some good work.”
Hernandez's work was a bit better.
Hernandez doesn't throw as hard as he once did — his fastball averaged 95.7 mph in 2007 and entered averaging 91.1 mph this season — but he has evolved from a hard-throwing kid to an intelligent, versatile pitcher. Fewer than half his offerings are fastballs.
Hernandez displayed an array of pitches Wednesday. He struck out Travis Snider on a diving changeup in the first. Andrew McCutchen watched a 90 mph fastball paint the inside corner for a third strike in the third. And 18,877 in attendance saw the white-hot Starling Marte swing and miss on a darting slider in the fifth.
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones said even with without elite velocity — Hernandez's fastball sat around 90 mph Wednesday — Hernandez was still difficult to hit.
“I think he realized early his velocity wasn't there, so he went off-speed,” Jones said. “With his (off-speed pitches) it's a combination of everything: he's able to spot it on the corners, keep the ball down, and then it's nasty. It has late break. … He didn't leave many pitches over the plate to drive.”
Most Pirates in the lineup Wednesday had never, or rarely, faced Hernandez.
The only damage against Hernandez came in the first. Marte, batting .616 in the first inning, doubled down the left-field line. One batter later, McCutchen lined the first pitch he ever saw from Hernandez, an 82 mph curveball, into center for an RBI single.
The Pirates last threatened in the eighth. Michael McKenry led off with a single, but Hernandez induced Pedro Alvarez to ground into a double play.
Hernandez allowed one run and six hits over eight innings, walking one and striking out five. He lowered his ERA to 1.53. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner pitched like a Cy Young candidate.
Tom Wilhelmsen worked the ninth for his ninth save.