CINCINNATI -- It's a good thing they didn't give the ball to Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett early in the game Saturday night. He would have drilled the first Cincinnati Reds batter he faced. He would have kept drilling 'em until they threw him out. He was angry after watching Reds starter Mike Leake hit teammate Josh Harrison with a pitch in the second inning, then come off the mound to bark at Harrison. Burnett blew his cork. He already was perturbed because Reds closer Aroldis Chapman had hit Pirates star Andrew McCutchen Friday night with a 101-mph fastball in the ninth inning. He glared from the Pirates dugout after Harrison's at-bat and pointed his finger at a number of Reds as if to let them know they would be his targets Sunday.
Fast-forward about 15 hours ...
A good night of sleep didn't lessen Burnett's dismay. "No one in here has forgotten about what happened to 'Cutch,'" he said. But it did make Burnett see the real significance of a hair-pull Sunday after the Reds had won the first two games of the weekend series to open a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League Central Division and loosen the Pirates' grip on the final wild-card spot with the St. Louis Cardinals charging. "We needed a big 'W' today," he said.
Burnett gave it to the Pirates, pitching 8 2/3 strong innings in a 6-2 win at Great American Ball Park. This followed his complete-game win against the Chicago Cubs five days earlier when he had a no-hitter for 7 2/3 innings. Burnett has won 13 of his past 14 decisions and is very much in the Cy Young conversation. Remarkably, the Pirates are 17-3 in his 20 starts.
No, Burnett didn't hit any Reds. In fact, two more Pirates -- Rod Barajas and Starling Marte -- were hit by pitches. Burnett was disciplined enough not to retaliate. "The game always dictates what you can do," he said. "Winning was more important than all of that other stuff."
That was the Pirates' story after the game and they were sticking to it.
"If A.J. drills someone, he gets thrown out. What good is that going to do us?" Barajas -- Burnett's personal catcher -- asked. "Then, we have to go to our bullpen early with a long stretch of games coming up. That makes no sense. There is a time and a place for [retaliation]. Today was the time to win. We got that done."
There's no doubt the Pirates handled the tense situation properly. It wasn't just Burnett Sunday who remained focused. It was struggling James McDonald Saturday night. It was much more important for him to get back on track after four awful starts than to take his pound of Reds flesh. Pirates management was concerned he would be ejected if he hit a Reds player early in the game even though the umpires didn't warn both benches about purpose pitches until after Harrison was hit by Leake. McDonald ended up finishing strong with three scoreless, hitless innings in a four-run, six-inning outing. He might not be back to the overwhelming form he had before the All-Star break, but this was a big step in the right direction.
Still, there was something less than a satisfying feeling Sunday in the Pirates clubhouse even after a win. The Reds didn't just take 2 of 3. They got away with hitting McCutchen, the heavy favorite for the National League's most valuable player award. Baseball protocol calls for a team to protect its own, especially when the player hit is a star. Beyond that, the Pirates felt the Reds -- especially Leake -- rubbed their noses in it just a bit.
"If you hit a guy like they hit Cutch -- first pitch, two outs, nobody on, ninth inning -- it tells me you're afraid to pitch to him," Burnett said of Chapman. "If you don't think you can get him out, then walk him. You don't have to hit him. I didn't like that at all."
No one with the Pirates liked it.
"The competitor in you wants immediate payback," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But there's a right time and a right way of doing things. Even then, [the retaliation] might not be as blatant as you would want it."
It would be pretty hard to please Pirates fans based on the reaction of many after McCutchen was hit. The talk shows buzzed all weekend. A lot of people wanted Reds blood. Barajas, Burnett and Huntington said they completely understood that. Heck, it's safe to say they wanted Reds blood, too.
This just wasn't the right time.
Stay tuned, though.
The Pirates and Reds play three more games Sept. 10-12 in Cincinnati and then three Sept. 28-30 at PNC Park.
"Good," Burnett said when reminded of the schedule. He then made one final point before he departed Great American Ball Park with his teammates for Pittsburgh and the start of an 11-game home stand tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Three simple words ...
"We haven't forgotten."
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.