CINCINNATI -- Though nothing ever comes easy in the National League Central Division, the Pirates simplified their path to home-field advantage in next week's wild-card game.
They did so in multiple fashions. They took advantage of gift-wrapped baserunners in the early innings. Later, they resorted to power hitting. The diverse offensive approach, combined with a solid start from A.J. Burnett, resulted in a 4-1 win Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
The Pirates need to win one of their remaining two games against the Reds to ensure that they will be the host of a one-game wild-card playoff Tuesday night at PNC Park. Charlie Morton takes the mound today, followed by Gerrit Cole Sunday if the location of the wild-card game is still in doubt.
"That should be motivation to go out there and win," Andrew McCutchen said.
"Try to make it easy. Don't wait until the last game, just go ahead and try to do it tomorrow."
Burnett (10-11) allowed one run in eight innings and struck out six. Manager Clint Hurdle removed him before the ninth and replaced him with Jason Grilli, who recorded his 33rd save. Burnett was displeased when Hurdle removed him before the ninth after he retired his final 10 batters and finished strong.
"I'm coming off after a good eighth," Burnett said. "In my mind, I'm going back out. I don't know what the score is, I don't know what the pitch count is. I know that I want to go back out. You're in the zone, you're focused, you're locked in."
A few minutes later, after a couple of deep breaths, Burnett received hugs in the dugout.
"It's all part of being a manager," Hurdle said. "We like A.J. just the way he is. He's got a lot of emotion."
Burnett made his previous start against the Reds in PNC Park last week and struck out 12 in seven innings of two-run ball.
"I just tried to go at them the same way," Burnett said. "Take nothing for granted against those guys, they come out swinging."
Burnett, a free agent after this season, is not guaranteed another start with the Pirates. If he made his final start, he picked a good time for a good performance.
With runners on first and second in the eighth and two outs, Hurdle sent Burnett to the plate.
"I felt our best eighth-inning option was him, on the roll he was on," Hurdle said.
He stayed in to pitch the bottom half of the eighth and retired the side in order, needing only 10 pitches to do so.
Before Homer Bailey's two most recent starts, both against the Pirates, he had a 1.59 ERA in a four-game span in which he pitched at least seven innings in each game.
In his past two starts, Bailey (11-12) allowed eight runs, six earned, in 102/3 innings, walking eight in the process. He walked four batters Friday night for the third consecutive game and allowed four runs in five-plus innings.
"The fastball wasn't really in play," Hurdle said of Bailey. "The breaking ball was in play."
Bailey gave the Pirates five free runners in the first three innings, and two of them came back to bite him. Bailey hit Starling Marte on an 0-2 pitch, putting the leadoff batter on base in the third. Marte stole second.
McCutchen and Justin Morneau walked to load the bases. Marlon Byrd singled to left field, scoring two runs, and the Pirates led, 2-0. The two-run single caused action in the Reds bullpen. Pedro Alvarez grounded into an inning-ending double play, but Bailey needed 58 pitches, only 31 for strikes, to finish three innings.
"He wasn't getting the pitches that he normally gets," McCutchen said. "Heater down and away, slider down and away. He wasn't spotting up like he does sometimes. We were taking advantage of that and waiting on a pitch to hit. If he didn't give us one, we'll take our free base."
Byrd doubled to the wall in left-center field to start the sixth. The ball came within inches of clearing the wall for a home run, but a review confirmed it as a double.
Alvarez, the next batter, took care to eliminate any ambiguity. He put his 35th home run of the season off the glass windows that serve as the batter's eye in center field, 443 feet away, and gave the Pirates a 4-1 lead. Alvarez was Bailey's final batter.
Todd Frazier put the Reds on the board in the fourth. He lined a first-pitch fastball from Burnett off the foul pole in left field for his 19th home run of the season. Marte, seeing how hard the ball was hit, did not bother giving chase.
Bailey hit two Pirates, but both appeared unintentional. He hit Neil Walker, putting a runner on first for McCutchen, and Marte, putting a man, who at the time had 40 steals, on first.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 28, 2013 2:15 AM