Another quality start for A.J. Burnett was not enough. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Seeing the Houston Astros again must make the Pirates nostalgic for last year, when Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett strapped the team to their back in the first half and carried them to first place on their own will.
So it was again for the Pirates (25-18) in a 4-2 loss Saturday night at PNC Park. McCutchen hit two doubles and scored the first two Pittsburgh runs while Burnett struck out seven hitters and allowed only one run. Otherwise, the Pirates stranded nine runners and the normally-solid bullpen coughed up three runs for the Astros (12-31) to win in 11 innings.
The Astros earned their two runs in the 11th off reliever Bryan Morris. After Morris escaped the 10th on a double play (one of four turned by the Pirates) Jason Castro led off the 11th by doubling off the center-field wall. Carlos Peña was intentionally walked with one out, then Morris’ wild pitch advanced both runners into scoring position. Matt Dominguez hit a grounder to second baseman Neil Walker, who threw home but couldn’t beat Castro. Clint Hurdle was tossed for arguing with home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor, but safe Dominguez was for the go-ahead run. Pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez’s RBI single added another.
Rookie Jose Cisnero was a hero out of the bullpen, following Erik Bedard’s quality start with 3.2 scoreless innings with five strikeouts. Closer Jose Veras mopped up the Pirates 1-2-3 in the 11th for the save.
Burnett held true to his ace-level billing with another strong showing. His sharp curveball was a swing-and-miss pitch once again, generating 11 swings and misses. The first inning was classic Burnett, loading the bases before striking out Chris Carter and Carlos Peña to escape unscathed. His only bump was in the 5th, as the Astros scored without hitting the ball out of the infield. Jose Altuve’s RBI single toward a stumbling third baseman Brandon Inge drove in Houston’s lone run off Burnett.
For a pitcher who was so erratic in New York, Burnett has become the picture of consistency. In all 10 starts, he has allowed three earned runs or fewer and has struck out at least six hitters. Now he has pitched seven innings in all four of his May starts, allowing a tired bullpen (second-most innings in MLB) some rest. Despite four walks, Burnett used two double plays to keep the Astros at bay and reduced his season ERA to 2.57.
As for McCutchen, he opened his 1st inning with a double that one-hopped the right field wall, scoring on a double by Gaby Sanchez in the next at-bat. The Pirates did not get another runner into scoring position until the 6th, when McCutchen struck again with a double just inside the left-field line to move Jose Tabata to third base. Though Tabata was thrown out at home by third baseman Matt Dominguez, McCutchen scored on Brandon Inge’s RBI single to put the Pirates ahead 2-1. Andrew McCutchen has scored five of the Pirates’ last eight runs.
The Astros would not go softly, though, hitting three singles off former Houston closer Mark Melancon to tie the game in the 8th. All-Star Jose Altuve hit one of those singles for his team-high third hit in his first game back from bereavement. The run scored by Trevor Crowe on Chris Carter’s RBI single snapped Melacon’s 13-scoreless-inning streak, dating back to April 14.