PITTSBURGH -- A.J. Burnett continued his remarkable pitching renaissance. The lineup at his back continued its abuse of visiting left-handers. As the sum of those parts, the Pirates continued on a roll, steadily gaining both momentum and confidence.In the latest dose, Pittsburgh completed a sweep of Kansas City with a 3-2 win on Sunday in front of 25,752 in PNC Park. Following Cincinnati's 7-6 loss to Detroit Sunday night, the Pirates hit the road to Baltimore tied for the NL Central lead. Andrew McCutchen drove in all three runs against Royals lefty Bruce Chen as the Bucs improved to 8-1 against southpaws at home. Overall, the win was the Pirates' fourth straight. It is their second four-game winning streak within a 12-3 run since May 25, the club's best 15-game stretch in nearly a decade. And, in terms of consecutive series won, the Pirates are on their best roll in 20 years, since Barry Bonds left town and took the seductive promise of postseason baseball with him. So the only thing different about this game was its ending. Not in its tension; this was Pittsburgh's 27th one-run game, so fans are accustomed to holding their breath for the 27th out. But in who had his finger on the pressure valve: Jason Grilli, with closer Joel Hanrahan out of action after having pitched in the previous three games.
Grilli was both dramatic and demonstrative in securing his first save since last Sept. 24, and only the fourth of his 10-year career.The drama: Between Alcides Escobar's opposite-field single and a one-out walk of Yuniesky Betancourt, he let the potential tying and go-ahead runs reach base. The demonstrative: Nailing it down on consecutive strikeouts of Alex Gordon and Johnny Giavotella, he punctuated the game-ending called third strike to Giavotella with an exaggerated hop off the mound and fist-pump -- for which he promptly apologized. "I don't know where that [Jose] Valverde fist-pump came from," Grilli said, referring to the animated closer of the Detroit Tigers. "I think it might've been a little extra jolt in the five-hour energy drink, I don't know." Grilli's saving graces ensured just rewards for Burnett (6-2), who pitched five-hit ball before finally giving in to the heat and to the humidity with one out in the eighth -- which at least allowed him to walk off the mound and soak in the appreciative ovation of the crowd.
If he could have, Clint Hurdle would have joined the applause."He gave us the depth we needed today," the Pirates manager said, alluding mainly to Hanrahan's unavailability at the end of the bullpen. "He enabled us to match up [relievers versus the Royals' lineup] the way we wanted to at the end of the game. Good tempo, good rhythm -- on a hot day, it was a very, very solid performance across the board." Burnett retired the first 11 men he faced, perpetuated a no-hitter into one out in the sixth, and was in absolute command until a pair of eighth-inning singles, wrapped around a wild pitch, placed runners at the corners with one out. Tony Watson came in to allow one run on a force-play grounder. Juan Cruz pitched one-third of an inning and got a hold, before Grilli finished up. "You want to go out and go as deep as you can every time out," Burnett said. "It just worked that way. I had a low pitch count early. That worked in my favor." Gordon's clean single to right with one out in the sixth spoiled Burnett's no-hit bid, and ensuing doubles by Brayan Pena and Escobar spoiled his shutout. By taking the first two games of this Interleague set, the Pirates had already clinched a fifth consecutive series win, something they had not done since 1992 -- the year before beginning the streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons that has become their albatross. In Bonds' lame-duck season and on the way to their last postseason appearance, those '92 Bucs took five consecutive sets from Aug. 25 through Sept. 9. McCutchen ensured that all the late-game spotlight would shine on Burnett by single-handily taking care of the offense against the left-hander Chen. Left-hander definitely the operative word there: Following his RBI double in the first and two-run homer in the third, McCutchen was batting .463 against southpaws, and also battering them for four homers and 17 RBIs in 22 games. His 11th homer had also given McCutchen 17 hits in his last 29 at-bats against left-handers. "It's just one of those things, I guess," McCutchen said of his torment of port-siders. "I see them a little better, I guess. I hadn't been feeling that great, past few days, but I figured a couple things out in the cage and was able to pretty much put on a show today." Chen, who had won five of his previous six starts, had no other trouble during his five-inning outing. But it sounded as though he wished he'd had a little more help prior to it. "I don't know these guys," Chen said of the NL competition, "so I have to go with what the scouting report says and it says [McCutchen] chases with two strikes -- up. So we try up-and-away and he hit a double, and we throw up-and-in and he hit a home run. "Both times he had two strikes and I'm trying to get a strikeout and we're trying to make him chase the ball. He swung -- but he didn't miss."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.