As Henry Rodriguez's bat sailed over A.J. Burnett's curveball Saturday night in the seventh inning, Burnett punctuated his post-strikeout twirl with a pump of his arm and a scream.
Maybe it was because that was Burnett's 12th strikeout of the game, his most in one start since 2009. Maybe it stemmed from the one-game lead Burnett's outing gave the Pirates over the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division after their 4-2 win at PNC Park. Maybe it was a nod to his curveball, which baffled Reds hitters all game even though they knew it was coming.
For the moment, the Pirates took sole possession of the first wild-card spot in the National League and relegated the Reds to the second wild card, one game back. If the season ended in that fashion, that would mean the Pirates would face the Reds in the wild card at PNC Park rather than Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Rodriguez was the final batter Burnett (9-11) faced. He finished seven innings and allowed two runs on four hits. After a shaky first inning and a home run allowed in the second, he was dominant.
Burnett possessed his good curveball and elicited swings and misses from right-handers and left-handers. Burnett has struck out at least 200 in three different seasons and became the first right-hander in Pirates history to strike out 200 in a season.
Burnett put three consecutive Reds on base in the first, leading to a run. Brandon Phillips singled and Joey Votto walked. Ryan Ludwick hit a one-hopper that Clint Barmes went to back-hand, but the ball bounced right past him for an RBI single.
Zack Cozart extended the Reds' lead in the second with his 12th home run of the season. He took a first-pitch fastball on the inside corner into the seats in left field.
After Votto singled off Burnett in the third, Burnett retired 14 of the final 15 Reds he faced. The only man to reach base was Ludwick, who walked in the sixth.
Burnett got help from the bullpen. After Bryan Morris issued a one-out walk in the eighth, Justin Wilson forced Joey Votto to ground into an inning-ending double play. Jason Grilli recorded his 31st save and his first since July 21.
The Pirates capitalized on two walks and an error in the sixth to force Reds starter Homer Bailey from the game. In 52/3 innings, Bailey (11-11) walked four and allowed four runs, two of them earned.
Bailey carried a 1.59 ERA in his past four starts into the game. In those outings, Bailey struck out 27 in 281/3 innings and only walked seven.
Russell Martin tied the score in the second. With two outs, Pedro Alvarez hit a grounder to Votto at first base, but Votto bobbled it, so an inning-ending ground ball became an inning-extending error. Martin hit the next pitch, a 95-mph fastball, out to left field for his 15th homer of the season.
The Pirates wouldn't put another runner in scoring position until the sixth, when Andrew McCutchen walked with one out. Bailey's pickoff throw to first bounced to the wall in foul territory, and the error allowed McCutchen to advance to third.
Justin Morneau walked. Marlon Byrd's sacrifice fly to the center-field warning track scored McCutchen.
Morneau advanced to second on the sacrifice fly, and with a runner in scoring position, Reds manager Dusty Baker wanted to minimize the damage. He brought in left-hander Zach Duke, who spent the first six years of his career with the Pirates, against Alvarez.
Alvarez worked the count full and sent a single into left field, scoring Morneau and extending the lead to two runs.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 22, 2013 2:15 AM