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.
What was running through his mind?
"I have no idea," he said. "They [his teammates] all loved it, that's all I know."
Maybe it was because that was Burnett's 12th strikeout of the game, his most in one start since 2009. Maybe it stemmed from looking forward to the one-game lead Burnett's outing gave the Pirates over the Cincinnati Reds for second place 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.
"It's one of those pre-emptive fist pumps," Burnett said. "I kind of felt that if I put the hook in the right spot, he'd swing over it. It happened."
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.
The Pirates remain two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central.
The win came one day after the Pirates blew a late lead and lost in extra innings and ensured that the Reds will depart Pittsburgh after the series finale today no better than tied with the Pirates.
"You're going to win, you're going to lose," Burnett said. "The losses came at the wrong time of the year, that's all."
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.
"This might have been the best curveball I've seen him have," said Russell Martin, who also caught Burnett while with the New York Yankees in 2011.
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. He took a first-pitch fastball on the inside corner into the seats in left field.
"He gave up the second run, I told him, 'That's all we give up today,' " Martin said. Burnett's response: "Yes, sir."
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.
"I want the ball," Grilli said. "I want to participate. Watching these guys do it for so long made me want to come back and do it with them."
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.
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.
"You try to take advantage of the mistakes," Martin said. "They did that [Friday] against us. [Saturday] was our turn."pirates
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.