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MIA@PIT: Pirates score four runs without a hit

PITTSBURGH -- Sticking in the heat of the National League Central race? The Bucs have it covered A.J. to Z.

A.J. Burnett turned in another dazzling performance Saturday night before another PNC Park sellout, headlining a 5-1 win over the Marlins celebrated with another round of the Zoltan "Zs."

Burnett (11-3) displayed typical home brilliance, running his PNC Park record to 7-0 -- the Pirates have won all 10 of his starts here -- by keeping Miami down for 7 2/3 innings, after which he departed to the thunderous roars of 39,411 -- the fifth-largest crowd in park history.

"I take two steps, and start to lose it," said Burnett, for whom such loud exits are becoming common. "It's a great atmosphere to be a part of. We're feeding off them, the way they're coming out and supporting us. And they should; we got a good thing going here."

The good thing reached a fourth straight victory for the fifth time, all since late May. The Pirates haven't yet made it past four. But you wouldn't want to put anything past them. They keep stacking up the impressive numbers: 20-4 in their last 24 homes games, 9-0 in Saturday home games, 11-4 in front of home crowds of 30,000-plus.

By clinching this series with the Marlins with only Sunday's finale remaining, the Bucs ran their record in their last 16 series to 13-2-1. Absurd, in a wonderful way.

Don't look for any hitting heroes in the Pirates' 53rd win, unless there is such a thing as heroic listening to your manager. Clint Hurdle wanted the Pirates to wait out Miami right-hander Carlos Zambrano -- make him work and fidget -- and the Bucs complied perfectly.

The Bucs broke this one open with the most action-filled four-run rally this side of wallpaper peeling. The bottom of the fourth lasted approximately 22 minutes, and the Pirates snapped a 1-1 tie on a thrown-away sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly and two bases-loaded walks. One doesn't often see four runs score on no hits, but these Pirates specialize in the extraordinary. They're the Cirque de Soleil of baseball.

Four runs hadn't been plated without a hit in a Major League inning since Sept. 23, 1998, when the Oakland A's did it at Seattle.

Asked whether he'd ever seen four runs scored without a safe hit, Burnett said, "Never. But that's the game of baseball."

So how utterly weird was that decisive inning? Pittsburgh already had its four runs before there was an official at-bat.

"You're around long enough, you'll see everything. But, no, it's been a long time since I've seen four runs score without a hit," Hurdle said. "As the game got on, we got better at (waiting out Zambrano). Earlier, we bit at some balls down. We had to take on better discipline to get where we needed to go, by laying off some pitches."

Despite a comparable great personal history in PNC Park, Zambrano simply was not up to the challenge. Oh, he was up -- and down, and in and out with his pitches -- and, quick enough, so was his pitch count, to an unmanageable level.

With Clint Barmes' terrific 11-pitch at-bat setting a tone, the Pirates made Zambrano throw 33 pitches in the fourth inning alone, just to get one out. By the time he was excused with the bases loaded, Zambrano had made 97 pitches in his 3 1/3 innings. Burnett made his 97th delivery with one out in the eighth.

While the Pirates had been undefeated in Burnett's previous nine starts at home, Zambrano himself had a career record of 8-1 at PNC Park.

Zambrano entered with 130 career wins. Burnett came in with 131, and clearly was in no mood to let Zambrano catch him.

"Very, very efficient," Hurdle complimented. "He picked up his breaking ball about halfway in. He just kept missing barrels, getting ground balls and mishits."

Burnett allowed eight hits but only one walk while fanning three to continually frustrate his original big league club. Burnett won 49 games with the Marlins from 1999-2005.

The Pirates dared to try something new: Scoring first, which they did in the first inning when Garrett Jones' grounder scored Alex Presley, who had drawn a leadoff walk and motored to third on Neil Walker's double. It was only the third time in eight second-half games that the Bucs had drawn first blood, and they had gone on to lose the first two, around four comeback wins.

The Marlins got even in a flash, when Justin Ruggiano began the second with a homer.

"That really upset me -- coming in a shutdown inning and all," Burnett said. "But leave a pitch up, those things will happen. After we got that big inning from the error [catcher John Buck's throwing error on Burnett's sacrifice set up the fourth], you have to program yourself that it's a zero-zero game and just go get outs."

Ruggiano would be the last Miami runner to touch third base until Jose Reyes advanced there on a two-out eighth-inning single by Carlos Lee, the last man faced by Burnett.

With those runners at the corners, Brad Lincoln entered and calmly fanned Logan Morrison. As Yogi Berra would say, Burnett kept having a good night even after it was over.

Because he had entered with the potential tying run on-deck, Lincoln, nurtured as a starting pitcher, got credit for his first professional save, in his 136th game. He added two more strikeouts in the ninth, around a single.

"Lincoln was spot on," Hurdle said. "Just what we needed for him to finish."

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