PITTSBURGH (AP) A.J. Burnett tipped his cap and bowed his head. First to the crowd that embraced him since the day he arrived four seasons ago. Then to the Cincinnati Reds, who had gathered on the top step of the dugout to salute the 17-year veteran who helped revitalize the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 430th and final regular-season start of Burnett’s career didn’t end in glory. The Reds jumped on him early and held on for a 3-1 win Saturday night that stopped their 13-game losing streak and prevented the Pirates from clinching home-field advantage in the NL wild-card game.
Pittsburgh still needs a victory Sunday or a Chicago Cubs loss to host the one-game playoff Wednesday night. If the Cubs beat Milwaukee – and the Pirates lose to Cincinnati again – the wild-card showdown would be played at Wrigley Field.
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”We do hard,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ”We’ve done hard from the start.”
Either way the Pirates are heading back to the playoffs for the third year in a row, exactly what Burnett envisioned after declining a $12.75 million option to stay with rebuilding Philadelphia and instead returned to Pittsburgh last winter. His arrival in 2012 helped usher in the franchise’s return to prominence after two decades of decline.
Given a chance to assure the Pirates of at least one more home game beyond Sunday’s regular-season finale, Burnett was steady if not spectacular. He gave up three runs and five hits with four walks in 6 2-3 innings. His nine strikeouts gave him 2,513 in his career, pushing him past Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson and into 30th place on the all-time list.
”It feels like I’m old and I pitched a long time,” said Burnett, whose career record is 164-157 with four teams. ”I think once I settled down after the first tonight, you saw I’ve got a little bit left.”
Just not quite enough to top rookie Brandon Finnegan (2-2), who was heading into first grade when Burnett made his major league debut with the Florida Marlins on Aug. 17, 1999. Finnegan allowed one run and three hits in six innings.
Adam Duvall hit his fifth homer and Aroldis Chapman got four outs for his 33rd save, ending Cincinnati’s longest losing streak in 70 years.
”It’s been a month of just a bunch of bad luck,” Finnegan said. ”Nothing’s been going our way, really, so it felt good to have something finally come on our side.”
Burnett’s sons AJ and Ashton – the main reasons the pitcher is calling it a career despite making the All-Star team for the first time this summer – threw out the first pitch and Burnett couldn’t help but think about his long journey from young fireballer to high-dollar disappointment in New York to cult hero in Pittsburgh.
”I’m going to miss it more than anything,” Burnett said. ”I got choked up.”
The final regular-season pitch of his career was a 3-2 fastball to Jason Bourgeois with two outs in the sixth that was just a little high. Hurdle came out to get him, the manager giving the 38-year-old a little pat on the chest before one last slow walk off the field. The Reds ran to the top of the dugout to applaud and a crowd that included one fan waving a Batman flag – Burnett’s superhero of choice – roared its approval.
”He deserves it,” Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto said. ”What a fantastic career. Better be the end of it; I’m tired of facing him, and I mean that.”
Burnett insists there is no chance he’s coming back in 2016, though catcher Francisco Cervelli doesn’t think he’s seen the last of Burnett on the mound.
”You guys (are) talking now like he’s never going to pitch again,” Cervelli said. ”So, that’s not going to happen. He will pitch again. We’re going to see him a couple more times (in the playoffs).”
Votto went 0 for 4 with an RBI, ending his streak of reaching base safely in 48 consecutive games. The run matched Pete Rose for the longest in club history and was the longest in the majors since Kevin Millar went 53 games in a row for Boston in 2007.
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The Reds will bring back manager Bryan Price next year despite a miserable season in which they finished in last place for the first time since 1983. Price is 139-183 in two seasons.
”I want to be here to see this through,” Price said. ”I don’t want to be the guy that comes in and has two seasons where we’re a bottom-of-the-division team and move on to doing something else in my life.”
J.A. Happ will try to finish off his sensational second half when he takes the mound in the regular-season finale. The left-hander is 6-2 with a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts for the Pirates since being acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline. The Reds will finish the franchise’s worst season since 1982 when Josh Smith makes his seventh career start. Smith (0-3, 7.22 ERA) has given up four runs in five innings across two appearances against the Pirates.