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PIT@HOU: Marte leads off game with first MLB homer

HOUSTON -- How was that for a spark?

All of this season, as magical as it has been along the banks of the Allegheny, people have been urging the promotion from Triple-A of Starling Marte, insisting that the mercurial outfielder could give the Pirates a spark.

Marte finally arrived on Thursday night, and his spark ignited a blaze that nearly set off fire extinguishers inside Minute Maid Park.

Marte's leadoff homer on his first Major League pitch triggered a punishing game-opening assault by a team that had dragged its bats for a week, leading to a 5-3 win over the Astros.

And, just like that, the unsolicited note that arrived a few days ago made perfect sense: "Have seen Marte play. It's like watching Rembrandt paint."

"He's been a special player all the way up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of his new leadoff hitter. "A lot of people have had an opportunity to watch him. Now it's our turn."

Garrett Jones drilled a two-run homer later in the first, Clint Barmes yanked a two-run homer in the second and Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel was looking for the reset button.

As the beneficiary of the opening salvo, A.J. Burnett hurled two-hit ball for seven innings, then a pair of homers ended his 7 1/3-inning night. With his 12th win of the season, he has already topped his win totals of each of the last two seasons. Burnett (12-3) issued one walk and struck out five.

"The guys came out swinging. It's always good to have that pressure off you," Burnett said. "You still have to approach it like a zero-zero game, but it was good to see the kid come up and get that first dinger, on the first pitch."

With more than two months of this season remaining, the right-hander whose late February acquisition began the revision of this team's culture of losing has exceeded his current win total only twice in his prior 13 seasons (18 in 2008 and 13 in 2009).

"That doesn't matter," Burnett said with a shake of his head. "It's the big picture that counts, what the team is doing."

For seven innings, Burnett could have pitched this game from a rocking chair. Carlos Corporan singled with one away in the third and Chris Johnson drew a one-out walk in the fifth. Burnett retired the other 19 men he faced through 6 1/3. And when Scott Moore broke that spell with a single, it merely set up an inning-ending double play off J.D. Martinez's bat.

"Very good, spotted the ball extremely well, had a dynamite curve," Hurdle said. "He kept the fastball tight on left-handed hitters. With that sharp breaking ball, he kept everyone off-balance. And we played very good defense on the corners" -- third baseman Pedro Alvarez and first baseman Casey McGehee.

Johnson and Corporan stayed on Burnett's case with homers in the eighth, leading to a call for Houston-area native Brad Lincoln, who closed out the eighth. Then Joel Hanrahan handled the ninth, allowing one run before nailing down save No. 30.

The trio of long balls raised the Pirates' season total to 110 -- three more than all of last season. The Bucs also have homered in their last 16 games on the road, a total of 35 times.

None, obviously, were as loud as the one by Marte.

Five days after hitting his 12th and last homer for the Indianapolis Indians, he connected for the first of who knows how many for the Pirates. Marte became the 13th Major League player since 2000 to homer on the first pitch thrown him, and the first Pirates player to homer on his first big league at-bat since Don Leppert, against St. Louis on June 18, 1961 -- when the Astros weren't yet even in existence.

Marte appears to have the head-game portion of this game down pat already. Though falling short of calling his first-pitch home run, he openly had raised the possibility in the dugout.

"I was telling the boys before the game in the dugout, if he throws a fastball in the middle, I'm going to take a hack at it," Marte said through interpreter/first-base coach Luis Silverio. "And that's what he did, and that's why I did."

"I figured he would take a strike to see what I've got," Keuchel said. "I never thought he was going to hit a home run the first pitch of the game. That's a career-first for me. I tip my cap to him. He put a good swing on it. Just that first inning was rough locating the two-seam, and I was leaving balls up."

An out later, Andrew McCutchen singled and trotted home on Jones' 15th blow. An inning later, Barmes followed a walk to Rod Barajas with his fifth.

Keuchel could have used that reset button: After giving up five runs and four hits in those first two innings, the lefty surrendered only one other hit in the rest of his six-inning stint, retiring 15 of the last 17 men he faced.

That one other hit, a fifth-inning single, belonged to Marte. The night belonged to him. Will the future?

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