Pirates down Reds, pull close to hosting wild-card game
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 10:12 p.m.
CINCINNATI — If Friday was his last appearance as a Pirate, A.J. Burnett saved some of his best work for his final outing in a 4-1 win over the Reds.
Burnett allowed one run and five hits over eight innings in his final regular-season start of 2013 to lead the Pirates (92-68) to a two-game lead over the Reds (90-70) for home-field advantage in Tuesday's wild-card play-in game — the Cardinals clinched the division with a victory over the Cubs.
He was supported by a two-run home run from Pedro Alvarez in the sixth and a two-run single from Marlon Byrd in the third.
Burnett is a free agent after the season and has said he is “50-50” on whether he'll keep pitching. There are no guarantees he'll pitch after Tuesday's wild-card game.
“I'm not even thinking about it,” Burnett said of his future. “I just want to get further than that one game. … (Friday) I was focused in the zone and able to place pitches.”
Burnett visibly was upset about being pulled after eight innings and 99 pitches. He argued with manager Clint Hurdle over giving the ball to closer Jason Grilli, who picked up his 33rd save.
“I took about five deep breaths,” Burnett said. “We're OK now.”
Hurdle is hoping it's not the last time he's faced with pulling Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA).
“I'm looking for him to pitch three or four more weeks,” Hurdle said.
Hurdle said Friday was another example of how much Burnett has improved as a pitcher while with the Pirates over the past two seasons.
Two seasons ago, Friday night in Cincinnati presented the type of climate in which Burnett would struggle. Great American Ball Park is a compact, hitter-friendly park. The Reds are loaded with impact left-handed batters.
But Burnett again showed the transformation he has made as a Pirate, the transformation that's allowed him to return to status as a top-of-the-rotation arm.
Since arriving in an offseason trade after the 2011 season, Burnett has bought into the club's approach of favoring two-seam, sinking fastballs over straighter four-seam fastballs.
He has thrown a career-high percentage of two-seam fastballs in 2013 and become a groundball pitcher. He entered Friday ranked second in baseball with a 56.6 percent groundball rate.
Burnett induced 11 groundouts and struck out six. The only damage was a Todd Frazier home run, but it was just the 11th Burnett allowed this season, a full-season career low. He allowed 31 homers in 2011.
“The pitching package has gotten to as a good of place as it might have been,” Hurdle said. “The confidence is in as good of a place as it's been in a while. … He's pitching with an edge.”
While Burnett was in command, walking only one, Reds starter Homer Bailey (11-12) struggled with command. He walked four and hit two, including Starling Marte to begin the third.
After hitting Marte, Bailey walked Andrew McCutchen and Justin Morneau to load the bases.
Byrd followed with a two-run single to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. In the sixth, Byrd doubled and Alvarez crushed his 35th homer deep to center estimated at 433 feet.
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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