For the fourth consecutive time in a big August game, Pirates starter A.J. Burnett came up small Monday night and the club lost another game it badly needed, 4-3, to the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. This is a serious Cy Young Award candidate? Please. Spare me that argument.
That doesn't diminish what Burnett did for the Pirates in the first four months of the long, grueling baseball season. He was awesome. He and center fielder Andrew McCutchen are the two biggest reasons the team still clings to life in the playoff chase, although its pulse is weakening quickly after its 13th loss in 18 games. It trails the Cardinals by three games for the final wild-card slot with 34 games left, including two more against the Cardinals the next two nights. Burnett and McCutchen are the biggest reasons the team still should finish with a winning record for the first time in 20 years despite their badly ill-timed individual collapses. (McCutchen did hit the ball hard four times Monday night and had two singles and a RBI). It has to be able to go at least 14-20 in those final 34 games, right?
But Burnett's performance in August has been beyond disappointing. His earned run average in his three starts before Monday night was 7.23. He lost at home to the San Diego Padres Aug. 11, giving up four earned runs in 52/3 innings. He was lucky to get a win at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers Aug. 16 after allowing six earned runs in 62/3 innings. He was extremely fortunate to get a no-decision at San Diego Aug. 21 despite giving up four runs, 12 hits and five walks in 61/3 innings. That was the game teammate Garrett Jones hit a tying, two-out, two-run home run in the ninth inning.
But Burnett remains the best starter the Pirates have. They needed a big game from him Monday night to stop the hemorrhaging. They especially needed it because the Cardinals started Kyle Lohse, who came in with a 13-2 record, a 2.61 ERA and wins in seven consecutive decisions. You want to know what a Cy Young contender looks like? Lohse had allowed two or fewer earned runs in 11 of his previous 12 starts, helping to give the Cardinals a chance to defend their world championship from last season.
But Burnett couldn't get it done despite coming "out of the box much better than in his previous three starts" -- manager Clint Hurdle's words -- in the first four innings. What makes the loss so hard to take is the Pirates gave Burnett a 2-0 lead in the fourth. He didn't just give those two runs back in the fifth inning with some serious command issues. He gave up two more runs in the sixth before calling it a frustrating night.
Burnett fell behind Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, 3-1, to start the fifth before Molina singled to right. He fell behind Skip Schumaker, 3-2, before Schumaker doubled to left-center to score Molina. He then gave up a run-scoring single up the middle to Lohse, who had just four singles and one RBI in his first 50 at-bats this season. The inning would have been worse if Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison hadn't made a marvelous relay throw home -- perhaps the best of the season -- to get Lohse, who was trying to score on Matt Carpenter's double to right-center.
"It does hurt," Hurdle said when asked about giving up runs to the opposition right after the Pirates score. "One of [Burnett's] obvious strengths -- and it has been most of the year -- is shut-down innings. He's been as good as anyone in the league. He just had a couple of pitches get away from him. And then they had that chopper up the middle [by Lohse] ... "
Burnett gave up two more runs in the sixth. He fell behind Matt Holliday, 3-0, before Holliday hit a home run to right field. He also allowed a sacrifice fly to Molina that scored an unearned run that was set up by a throwing error by shortstop Clint Barmes. Burnett left when the game was delayed by rain for 34 minutes after Molina's at-bat.
The lousy weather made for a dreary atmosphere at the ballpark. The game should have had a playoff-like feel to it, but it didn't come close to it. Attendance was announced as 16,700, but there didn't seem to be more than 10,000 in the stands. There were a lot fewer after the rain delay.
The Pirates will try again tonight against the Cardinals to keep their once-marvelous season from slipping away. You think Burnett was due for a big start? James McDonald, who will get the ball, is 2-3 with a 7.29 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break. Wandy Rodriguez will get the start Wednesday night. He's 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in five starts since joining the club at the trade deadline.
Two things seem clear if the Pirates are going to have any chance -- any realistic chance -- of making the postseason:
They need to win both games against the Cardinals.
Burnett has to pitch a whole lot better down the stretch.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. 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.