The ball had barely left Jason Grilli's hand before he began to celebrate.
By the time the pitch, a 96-mph fastball that Johnny Giavotella took for a called strike three, hit Rod Barajas' glove, Grilli was well on his way to a triumphant fist pump.
"I put everything into it," he said of the pitch. "I'm not going to be tentative."
The strikeout capped a 3-2 win and series sweep against the Kansas City Royals Sunday at PNC Park. The win, the Pirates' fourth in a row and sixth in their past seven games, moved them five games over .500 at 32-27 and gave them a share of first place in the National League Central Division after the Cincinnati Reds lost, 7-6, Sunday night to the Detroit Tigers.
"It is fun," Grilli said. "That's all you can say about it. The Pirates fans here should be having fun and I hope that they're going to enjoy it."
The crowd of 25,752 gave A.J. Burnett a standing ovation after a masterful start. Burnett tipped his cap as he walked to the dugout in the eighth inning, increasing the volume of the applause.
Burnett (6-2) pitched 71/3 innings and allowed two runs on five hits, throwing 71 of his 107 pitches for strikes. He did not allow a hit until the sixth, when Alex Gordon singled to right field, and did not allow a baserunner until he walked Eric Hosmer in the fourth.
"The breaking ball was very effective to left-handed hitters," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Pitch efficiency was better."
He worked quickly and easily through the first four innings, needing 44 pitches to do so, before encountering trouble in the fifth. He walked Mitch Maier, then hit Alcides Escobar. Pitching coach Ray Searage visited the mound, and on the next pitch Burnett got Jarrod Dyson to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Burnett has not allowed more than three runs in all but one start this season. Hurdle, who charted Burnett's pitches as the hitting instructor with the Texas Rangers in 2010, cited improved command with all of his pitches as important to his success.
"It's just the next-pitch mentality," Burnett said. "I've been more focused on that this year than I have in a couple years. In between innings, you tell yourself that."
The Royals didn't score off Burnett until the seventh. He allowed a double to Brayan Pena, then another to Escobar that scored Pena and cut the Pirates' lead to 3-1.
Gordon singled in the eighth, went to second on a wild pitch and took third on Giavotella's single. Hurdle removed Burnett, bringing in left-hander Tony Watson to face the left-handed Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Hosmer reached on a fielder's choice, scoring Gordon and reducing the Pirates' lead to 3-2. Right-hander Billy Butler pinch-hit for Moustakas and walked, prompting Hurdle to replace Watson with Juan Cruz.
Cruz walked Pena to load the bases, but struck out Mitch Maier looking to end the inning.
Grilli filled in for Joel Hanrahan, who had pitched three days in a row and four of the past five, and earned his first save of the season.
"It's fun to get a chance to do it every once in a while," Grilli said.
Andrew McCutchen went 2 for 3 with a double, home run, stolen base and had all three Pirates RBIs. In his first at-bat, he lined a double to right-center field, scoring Alex Presley and giving the Pirates a 1-0 lead. He crushed a 1-2 fastball from Bruce Chen (5-6) for a line-drive home run to left in the third, scoring Neil Walker.
By then, Chen and the Royals had seen enough. With two outs in the fifth, Presley on second and first base open, Chen intentionally walked him.
McCutchen continued his assault on left-handed pitching. He entered the game hitting .442 with a .731 slugging percentage against left-handers and had 15 hits in his previous 27 at-bats against them.
The Pirates completed their 27th game decided by one run and improved to 17-10 in such games.
"We're in a lot of one-run ball games," Grilli said. "If anything, we're getting pretty good practice at it."
The Pirates will take the winning streak -- and the fun -- on the road after a day off today.
"This is what you dream about when you're sitting on the couch and you're not in the playoffs," Grilli said. "This is what you set out to do in spring training."
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published June 11, 2012 4:00 AM