PITTSBURGH -- They returned home 10 days ago, with no intentions of leaving again without at least a .500 record, the basic starting gate to contention. The target to hit was clear: 6-3.
With A.J. Burnett spinning seven masterful innings of two-hit ball and rookie Matt Hague doubling off Johnny Cueto for two runs with two outs in the sixth, the Pirates beat the Reds, 2-1, on Wednesday at PNC Park before 16,782."A good series for us. A good homestand -- and I like the way it finished," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who apparently had gotten a Major League kick out of watching two pitching virtuosos go at it. "We needed a big outing from [A.J.] tonight to match up with Cueto ... you can watch a lot of games and not see one much better pitched than what you watched tonight," Hurdle said, his voice gradually rising until he virtually shouted, "That was a big league ballgame! Very exciting." The result of it was also kinda cool. Taking a series from the National League Central-leading Reds sent the Pirates out of town with a record of 25-25. Burnett's record went to 4-2, and his ERA to 3.60, after he allowed only an unearned run in his seven innings, with two walks and three strikeouts. The low strikeout total was reflective of the wiles of a veteran who realized his fastball was working better than his put-away pitch, the curve. So Burnett's intent was to get the Reds to hit the ball on the ground -- which was where he got 14 of his 21 outs. "He threw a lot of ground balls," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "You saw how many balls we topped tonight. He must have been sinking and moving to top that many balls against us. He threw a really good game against us. Johnny threw a real good game too." "Had a decent hook, not a great hook," Burnett said. "Was just trying to keep the fastball down. Definitely used my squad tonight. There were some tremendous plays behind me." Some of them were turned by rookie shortstop Jordy Mercer, who definitively made his presence felt in his first Major League start. The first-inning single for his first big league hit went into his personal trophy case. "It was good to get it out of the way. Something you always dream about, and it actually happened," said Mercer, whose wife and parents were all in the PNC Park seats to share his big night. Mercer's work afield, conversely, went into the win column. The lean defender started a seventh-inning rally-killing double play and had five other assists, and his jaw-dropping moment came on the very first, misdirected chance. He started up the middle for Mike Costanzo's second-inning grounder -- which Burnett deflected to the shortstop's right. Mercer turned on a dime to easily backhand the ball, and fired a strike to first for the putout. "Very nice game," Hurdle said. "He had a variety of plays in the field. He knew when to take his time, and when to get the throw off." Burnett worked six innings in a 1-0 hole but kept it from getting deeper, and the payoff for his tenacity came without warning, after two quiet outs in the sixth. Neil Walker drew a walk. Garrett Jones bounced a full-count pitch into right for a single. Hague dropped his bat on a low fastball, ripping it up the right-center alley for a two-run double and a 2-1 lead. "Two-out walks will sometime kill you," Walker said. "He made a couple of mistakes in that inning, and it ended up costing him. Chances of running out there and scoring a bunch of runs with [Cueto] on the mound are very slim, so taking advantage of an opportunity was nice." It was nicest for Hague, whose last RBI had come when the ball hit him, for his walk-off hit-batter on Saturday against the Cubs. "My first two at-bats [against Cueto], my swing was getting long. Basically, I was trying to do too much," Hague said. "That time, I told myself to stay short, and just looked for a ball over the plate and drive it." The king of shut-down innings took it from there, Burnett keeping the Reds down in a seventh in which they actually made him work hard. Burnett allowed two leadoff hits, six innings apart. A game-opening double by Zack Cozart that turned into an unearned run, and a seventh-inning single by Chris Heisey that turned into a double play. After Cozart had begun the first with a drive that bounced into the seats in left-center for a double, Drew Stubbs sacrifice bunted him to third, but was safe himself when Pedro Alvarez mishandled the ball for his 10th error of the season. After Jay Bruce lined out to first base, Brandon Phillips' fly to left was an RBI, not the inning-ending out. The Pirates misfired on their first shot at Cueto, the next inning, when Jones' triple and a pair of two-out walks -- intentional to Rod Barajas, quite accidental to Burnett -- loaded the bases. Burnett's eight-pitch battle with Cueto must not have impressed Jose Tabata on any level: He swung at Cueto's first pitch, bouncing it to second base.
Joel Hanrahan pitched around a pair of hits in the ninth to record his 13th save.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.