PITTSBURGH -- Amid the Pirates' many feel-good stories, the feel-best story may very well be the renaissance of A.J. Burnett. It is always reassuring when good people triumph over others' judgments, and Burnett has taken both the ball and the pulpit for the Bucs."He enjoys every single day, and it just rubs off on you," said catcher Rod Barajas, who is reunited with the veteran pitcher four years after they formed a Toronto battery. "To be back with him and be able to again work with him has been great." The way he has affected the Pirates, you don't know whether Burnett should be up for the Cy Young Award -- or the Robert Young Award. In television's Golden Age, the actor starred in "Father Knows Best," dispensing advice to his kids in the manner that Burnett has employed to mentor the younger guys on the Pittsburgh staff. It is pretty cool to listen to a guy who leads your team with eight wins and has nine quality starts among his 12. There is a considerable segment out there nodding its collective head and thinking, "Yeah, well, we saw this coming. That whole 'get out of the AL East beast into the soft NL Central' thing." Oh yeah? Please note that four of Burnett's wins, including the last three, have been over American League teams. And the one time he was roughed up, to the stats-inflating tune of 12 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings, it was at the hands of the Cardinals, one of those "soft" NL Central teams.
McCutchen having a month that can't be denied
PITTSBURGH -- After authoring a fabulous May, Andrew McCutchen watched the National League's Player of the Month Award go to the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton.
There was only one thing for McCutchen to do:Dial up his game in June.
Let the voting begin anew. Perhaps the center fielder will soon have to clear wall space for a plaque as the Bucs' first winner of the monthly award since Pedro Alvarez took it home in September 2010.After clubbing .360 in May with eight homers and 18 RBIs, McCutchen has gone from blue flame to white in June: After Saturday's 4-1 win over the Tigers, he has a .377 average for the month, with 20 RBIs and nine homers. The most encouraging aspect of the production for manager Clint Hurdle is the reasonable expectation that it won't stop -- not like a year ago, when McCutchen hit .347 in June, then overreacted to the Pirates' surprising contention and became a .216 hitter in the second half. "He tried to grab the rest of the lineup and throw it on his back, going for a game-changer every at-bat," Hurdle recalled. "He lost focus, for no other reason than wanting the team to do well. It was a great lesson learned. He's just a better player than he was last season." With 14 stolen bases to go along with his dozen homers, McCutchen is in the hunt for a 30-30 season, which, as he pointed out during Spring Training, is never a target but would be a by-product of his daily efforts. It would be the club's first 30-30 season since -- and there's that flashback again -- 1992, when Barry Bonds paired 34 homers with 39 steals. "When you've got speed and power, it's a pretty nice combination," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, the Pirates' skipper during those Bonds days. "Andrew McCutchen is one of the best in the business, in my opinion. I don't see him all that much. I've seen enough of him to make that judgment. I think he's a great player." "For power and speed, Matt Holliday in 2007 ranks at the top of my list," said Hurdle, citing his left fielder during his days managing Colorado. "He was the whole package. Andrew is moving himself closer to being that type of player."
Watson, Bucs' 'MacGyver,' keeps escaping jams
PITTSBURGH -- In the Pirates' hard-fought 4-1 victory over the Tigers on Friday night, 34 Detroit batters faced five Pittsburgh pitchers.But left-hander Tony Watson was the only one of the five who had to face the potential tying run. And it was the only man he faced: Austin Jackson, with two outs and two on in the seventh inning of a game the Pirates led by three runs. Watson struck out Jackson to defuse the threat, then the Pirates' very own MacGyver called it a night. "There you go," said Watson, acknowledging how that situation summarized his high-wire role in the Pirates' bullpen. "I didn't even think about that, but it seems like I'm always in a situation where the game can turn either way. "So you've always got to be on your game, attack the hitter and get ahead. [Jackson] can easily hook one down the line, and it's a tie game." Until Doug Slaten's promotion from Indianapolis three weeks ago, Watson had been the only left-hander in manager Clint Hurdle's bullpen. Watson has a unique role, but it has little to do with matching up against key left-handed batters, since he actually has been more effective against righty (.143 opponents average) than same-side (.250) batters. Rather, Watson has been the primary stopper. Hurdle otherwise prefers to have relievers start innings, with a clean slate. Watson, however, is the one repeatedly asked to douse embers before they become fires. In his 31 appearances, Watson has inherited 33 runners. All of Pittsburgh's other relievers have inherited a combined total of 46. Watson has stranded 27 of the 33. "I don't want to let down our guys," Watson said. "You've got starters who go deep into games and leave with some traffic, I want them to be able to move away from their starts on a good note."
"We're all better prepared for the future if we listen and pay attention to our past." -- manager Clint Hurdle, on how he expects the experiences of 2011 to help the 2012 Pirates down the stretch
With Saturday's win, the Bucs improved to 7-0 in home games, to 7-2 in front of home crowds of 30,000-plus and to an MLB-best 16-4 home record since May 12. Coming up with sour notes on a team a season-high six games above .500 is not easy, but try this one: Casey McGehee and Neil Walker both struck out in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, making the Bucs 8-for-40 in those situations this season. For the 24th time in 35 home games, Pirates pitching allowed fewer than three earned runs. Pedro Alvarez had a relatively quiet game, yet going 1-for-3 kept him at a .500 rate over his last seven games. One of Brad Lincoln's recent problems has been difficulty closing out innings. In his prior two starts, batters werent 9-for-15 against him with two outs. On Saturday the Tigers went 0-for-6 with two outs.
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.