As A.J. Burnett walked off the field in the seventh inning, the cheers began to pick up.
After a 1-2-3 eighth, they got louder, and louder still when he took the mound for the ninth.
The sellout crowd of 37,980 Sunday afternoon at PNC Park realized what was happening. A.J. Burnett was in the midst of an A.J. Burnett start.
"It's been a great season all around, packing this place in," Burnett said. "They know what's at stake. They know what kind of team we have. They know it's different."
Burnett had good command of his knuckle-curve. He struck out batters. He kept batted balls on the ground. He did all those things efficiently enough to pitch a complete game against the Colorado Rockies, giving the Pirates a 5-1 win and ensuring they took two out of three games in the series.
Burnett (5-7) held the Rockies to one run on eight hits. He struck out nine and walked one. The complete game also ensured two full days of rest for the bullpen, including the team's off day today.
"You take pride in finishing what you started. All those guys down there, they could use a break," Burnett said, nodding toward the relievers at the other end of the clubhouse.
Burnett pitched seven innings in each of his previous two outings, but threw 107 and 113 pitches. He needed only 110 to go the distance Sunday, and 83 were strikes.
"He had good command of both the sinker and the four-seamer, and he was just working on the edges," said catcher Russell Martin, who hit a three-run home run in the fifth. "And when he wasn't working on the edges, it was down in the zone and moving. He kept his pitch count low.
"That's one of the things with A.J. He's got such good stuff, it takes him a while to get hitters to put the ball in play and [Sunday] he was just electric."
Burnett received support from an offense that waited out Rockies starter Juan Nicasio and took advantage of the bullpen. The Pirates had eight hits, including three for extra bases. Andrew McCutchen went 2 for 3.
Duress in every inning but one inflated Nicasio's pitch count, and he needed 103 to get through 41/3 innings. Nicasio (6-6) was charged with four runs on six hits and three walks.
Garrett Jones' game at the plate -- 0 for 0 with two walks and an RBI on a sacrifice fly -- embodied what the Pirates tried to do against Nicasio.
"He was trying to hit his spots, keep the ball down and away," Jones said. "I think that's why his pitch count was so high, he couldn't hit that spot regularly and consistently. When he made a mistake, we were able to drive the ball. If not, we were taking our walks."
The Pirates had a lead three batters into the first. Starling Marte led off with a double and scored on McCutchen's single.
Neil Walker doubled to start the third and stayed alive to score because of a smart play on the bases. McCutchen singled, putting runners on the corners, and Pedro Alvarez walked to load the bases.
Martin grounded to third. DJ LeMahieu stepped on third, retiring McCutchen and removing the force at home for Walker. LeMahieu threw home, but Walker retreated to third. He arrived there to find McCutchen, who was already out, standing on the bag, momentarily confusing catcher Yorvit Torrealba and preventing him from catching Walker in a rundown.
Jones hit a sacrifice fly, and Walker scored to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
McCutchen walked with one out in the fifth and Alvarez singled, chasing Nicasio from the game. His replacement, Manny Corpas, hung a slider on his first pitch to Martin that became a three-run home run.
The Rockies finally scored in the seventh. Michael Cuddyer singled and took second on Burnett's wild pitch. Jonathan Herrera's single scored Cuddyer.
The Pirates improved to 67-44 with 51 games remaining. They are off today before facing the Miami Marlins for three games at home.
"It's a team thing. It's the new Pirates," Martin said. "The 20 years are about to be over."mobilehome - homepage - breaking - pirates
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published August 4, 2013 8:45 PM