There is something especially beautiful about baseball when it's played the right way. A dominant complete game, which A.J. Burnett gave the Pirates Sunday in a 5-1 win against the Colorado Rockies, is wonderful. So is a three-run home run, which Russell Martin produced in the fifth inning to take all suspense out of the game. But the play of the day involved pure brilliance on the bases by Neil Walker. It's not something you see often, even from big-leaguers, many of whom aren't nearly as sharp fundamentally as they should be.
"Instinctual," Walker called it.
Not so much on his part, he said, but Andrew McCutchen's.
OK, let's include McCutchen, too.
Walker, who started the third inning with a double, was on third, McCutchen on second and Pedro Alvarez on first with no outs when Martin hit a roller down the third-base line. Walker glanced over his shoulder as he headed toward home, saw that Rockies third baseman D.J. LeMahieu was going to field the ball and likely step on third base to force out McCutchen, which is what happened. Walker also knew that eliminated him being forced out at the plate, which is why he stopped suddenly after LeMahieu's throw to catcher Yorvit Torrealba and headed back to third with Torrealba chasing him.
LeMahieu knew what was going on and yelled for Torrealba to throw him the ball so he could tag out Walker. But Torrealba never did, instead running Walker back to third where McCutchen still was standing. Torrealba tagged Walker and McCutchen on the base. Third-base umpire Chris Guccione quickly made the correct call -- McCutchen out, Walker safe.
"I give all the credit there to Andrew," Walker said. "He could have kept going and ran to the dugout because he knew he was out. But he was smart enough to stay there. There was definitely some confusion with them because Andrew was on third. They didn't know what was going on."
The botched double play hurt the Rockies. Instead of having runners on first and second with two outs, the Pirates still had the bases loaded with one out. Walker scored on Garrett Jones' sacrifice fly to give them a 2-0 lead.
"That's the way I have to play," Walker said. "That's the way we have to play as a team. Small ball. Defense. Pitching. Making all the routine plays."
It was the second time in five games that Walker contributed to a Pirates win with his awareness on the bases. After leading off the eighth with a single Wednesday night and the scored tied against the St. Louis Cardinals, he tagged and advanced to second on Alvarez's long fly ball to left. He then scored the winning run on Martin's two-out single.
"That's part of the home-field advantage," Walker said. "I know how deep left field is in this park and I knew [left fielder Matt Holliday] was running away from the play. Chances are that was going to either be a home run or an out. It was a gamble play on my part."
Martin made the Cardinals pay and was back at it again Sunday against the Rockies. Is there any doubt that he's the Pirates' most irreplaceable position player? He threw out Corey Dickerson trying to steal second in the first, the 21st time he has thrown out a runner in 41 steal attempts. His home run inside the left-field foul pole on the first pitch he saw from reliever Manuel Corpas was a bonus.
"He continues to find ways to give us meaningful at-bats," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Martin.
Martin also managed to coax magic out of Burnett, who needed 110 pitches -- an amazing 83 strikes -- to give the Pirates their second complete game of the season. In the third and fifth, he stranded runners on third base with one out. If not for a wild pitch in the seventh before Jonathan Herrera's run-scoring single to right field, he would have pitched a shutout.
"This is A.J.'s best game of the season," Hurdle said. "Best stuff. Best command."
It's no wonder Burnett pounded the PNC Park lawn with joy with his right hand after the Pirates ended the game with a double play. Often a victim of little run support, he had his first win since June 8, his first at home since May 3. But more than that, the win pushed the Pirates back to 23 games over .500 at 67-44 and left them with a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place St. Louis in the National League Central Division. It has a 6 1/2-game lead over Cincinnati for the first wild-card spot and, more impressively, an 11-game lead over Arizona for the second wild card.
Walker dismissed his role.
"We won the game, that's all that matters. No one cares who gets the credit."
We'll give it out here, anyway. Plenty goes to Burnett and Martin. But just as much goes to Walker.
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. First Published August 5, 2013 4:00 AM