Considering how dominant Aroldis Chapman has been closing out games for the Cincinnati Reds, A.J. Burnett may need to duplicate arguably his best start of the season to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates in close contention for an NL Central title.
The top two teams in the division conclude their three-game set Sunday in Cincinnati, with the Pirates desperate to avoid a sweep that would drop them 6 1/2 games behind the Reds.
Chapman has notched saves in the first two games of this series as Cincinnati (66-41), which has been on a month-long tear, is now threatening to run away with the Central. The fireballing Cuban has saves in 13 consecutive appearances, striking out 24 in only 12 1-3 innings in that span while conceding only six hits, two hit batsmen and one walk.
The Reds' bullpen has thrown 4 2-3 scoreless innings in this series, including Chapman's scoreless ninth Saturday in Cincinnati's 5-4 win - its 15th in 16 games. Jonathan Broxton, acquired Tuesday at the trade deadline, has contributed 1 2-3 shutout innings in his two games with the Reds and picked up the win Saturday.
"If we can just run out there and do our job, it really makes the game shorter," Broxton told the team's official website.
Cincinnati's relievers lead the majors with a 2.53 ERA, and their 37 saves trail only Pittsburgh's 39.
That leaves Burnett (13-3, 3.27 ERA) in the position of needing to be a stopper for the Pirates, something he did in dominant fashion Tuesday, coming within four outs of a no-hitter before settling for a one-hitter with eight strikeouts in a 5-0 win over the Chicago Cubs.
"It's a short road from no-no to oh-oh. I didn't want to go there," Burnett told the team's official website after winning his third consecutive start. "I was able to regroup and make pitches, calm down and finish. But I was upset."
The right-hander upset Reds hitters twice in a five-day span earlier this season, beating them twice while limiting them to four runs and seven hits with 11 strikeouts in 12 innings. Burnett is 4-3 with a 4.96 ERA in nine lifetime starts versus Cincinnati.
Offensively, the Pirates (60-46) have failed to find the clutch hit in this series, going 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position in the two losses as their August has started much like last year's August, when they faded from contention by going 8-22. This time, however, the Pirates do have the luxury of chasing two wild-card spots. They currently own a 2 1/2-game lead over St. Louis for the second berth.
"We're not going to quit,'' said manager Clint Hurdle said, who was ejected in the second inning Saturday after the umpires warned both benches about pitching inside. "We're going to show up. It's a fun time of the year. You don't like the loss and we have to do a little better. The effort is there. I've come to expect our guys to be professional. Their focus is where it needs to be.''
Red starter Homer Bailey (9-6, 3.85) didn't show that sort of focus Tuesday, when he was roughed up for a season high-tying six runs - all in the fourth inning - against San Diego, squandering a six-run lead but getting bailed out as Cincinnati won 7-6 with 5 1-3 scoreless innings of relief.
"Homer struggled in that inning," manager Dusty Baker told the Reds' official website. "We couldn't get anybody loose quick enough. It happened so quickly. He made some decent pitches."
Bailey hasn't made many decent pitches against Andrew McCutchen, who is 8 for 22 with two doubles and one triple lifetime against the right-hander. McCutchen, though, is 1 for 7 in this series and 7 for 33 (.212) in nine games versus Cincinnati this season.