Pirates-Padres: All eyes on A.J.

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He's been mostly a tower of strength, on the field and off it, since joining the Pirates before the start of last season, but today, as the Pirates find themselves in a classic dog-days-of-August pennant race, there are concerns about the pitching ability of A.J. Burnett. The one-time staff leader all of a sudden has become a questionable No. 2.

Based on just two poor starts -- 10 innings, 16 hits, 10 earned run -- on Aug. 10 and 15, that's a harsh judgment. But the judgment is based more on Burnett's history of awful Augusts than it is on his two most recent starts.

From 2009 through this month, Burnett has a 7.03 ERA in August. The rest of the time over those almost five seasons he ERA is 3.77.

There's no accounting, other than history, for Burnett's abrupt decline this month. In the three starts prior to his last two -- one of them in August -- he had a 1.17 ERA. Going back six starts, his ERA was 1.88. Based on common baseball sense there's every reason to believe Burnett can pitch effectively the rest of the season. Based on his recent Augusts, maybe not.

For the season, Burnett is 5-8 with a 3.18 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. He leads National League starters with a 9.93 K/9. This is the line to Burnett's stats against San Diego batters.

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Marte scratched: Outfielder Starling Marte was in the original lineup but was scratched due to issues with his right ring finger. He should be ready to play tomorrow.

MVP-MVP-MVP: If performance in the heat of a pennant race is a factor in MVP voting -- and it certainly should be -- Andrew McCutchen is making an impressive case for himself. This is McCutchen's August batting line: .431/.542/.603 -- 1.145. He is second in batting average, first in on-base percentage and fifth in OPS. This is his batting line since the All-Star Game: .363/.447/.619 -- .1066. He is fourth in batting, third in on-base percentage, fifth in slugging and third in OPS. I'm hearing people complain about McCutchen. I see nothing to complain about.

Short bench: With neither Alex Presley nor Andrew Lambo eligible for recall -- they have to spend 10 days in the minors -- it looks like the Pirates will go with a short bench tonight despite the fact the bullpen is in a more rested state. Russ Canzler, Chase d'Arnaud and Jerry Sands are the options available on the 40-man roster. Their respective batting averages at Indianapolis are .255, .234, .211.

Mixed bag: Pedro Alvarez leads the National League in home runs but he is not providing the Pirates the kind of offensive consistency they need from a No. 4 hitter. He has four home runs in the past 10 games, but during that stretch he's batting .196 (9-for-46). For August, he's batting .194 with a .664 OPS. Since the All-Star Game he's batting .195 with a .652 OPS.

How's the bullpen holding up? Fans have been concerned all season about how well the bullpen would hold up under the frequent but judicious use of Clint Hurdle: Here are their ERA-WHIP-BAA comparisons from the first half to the second. Pre-All Star/Post-All-Star: Mark Melancon: 0.81/0.79/.189 -- 1.29/0.93/.196; Justin Wilson: 1.64/1.09/.172 -- 2.31/1.20/.227; Vin Mazzaro: 2.70/1.15/.253 -- 1.84/1.30/.218; Tony Watson: 3.35/0.94/.202 -- 1.26/0.91/.204; Bryan Morris: 2.72/1.11//193 -- 4.40/1.53/.316.

Opposing pitcher: Right-hander Tyson Ross, 3-5, 2.62 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, opened the season as a starter, was shifted to the bullpen at the end of April and rejoined the rotation in late July. As a starter, he's 3-2 with a 2.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Since returning to the rotation, his ERA is 1.29 -- five earned runs and 17 hits in 34 innings. His BAA for the season is .218. Ross, who pitched for Oakland from 2010-12, has never faced the Pirates.

Pirates lineup, 10:10 game time:

1. Tabata, LF

2. Walker, 2B

3. McCutchen, CF

4. Alvarez, 3B

5. Martin, C

6. Jones, RF

7. Sanchez, 1B

8. Mercer, SS

9. Burnett, P


First Published August 20, 2013 12:00 AM


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